Though many expect second-ranked Clemson to just blow by Georgia Southern when the two southern schools meet Saturday at Death Valley for a noon kick, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney does not feel the same way.
Swinney has a lot of respect for the Georgia Southern program, a program that won six Division I-AA national championships and is the first school in Division I history to go 15-0.
In recent years, the Eagles have traveled to Florida and beat the Gators in the Swamp. They have also given both Georgia and Alabama a run for their money. Georgia beat them by six points just a few years back in Athens, while they rushed for more than 300 yards against Alabama’s vaunted defense.
“This is a team that will not be intimidated that they are playing Clemson,” Swinney said. “It is a very proud program. That is part of their culture. That is who they are at Georgia Southern.”
Swinney is excited about playing Georgia Southern because it’s a program and town he was around a lot when he was young assistant coach at Alabama.
“I have always had a lot of respect for Georgia Southern,” he said. “When I was at Alabama, my recruiting area was from Augusta, down to Savannah and all the way across the state, so I spent a lot of time over in Statesboro. I signed a kid or two out of Statesboro and in that area.
“That used to be one of the places I loved to stay. I would stay in Statesboro. I would go jog the campus at Georgia Southern. They had a little lake there. I used to go around and think what a cool football down this is. You could just feel the tradition of Georgia Southern when you are in that town.”
After the football program laid dormant for 40 years, former Georgia defensive coordinator Erk Russell was hired to rebuild the program in 1981. Not only did Russell build it, but it became a national power at the I-AA level, now known as the FCS.
Russell’s teams won three national titles in 1985 and ’86, and then again in 1989. His last team, the ’89 squad, went 15-0, the first in the modern era of college football. In his eight seasons as the head coach at Georgia Southern, Russell compiled an 83-22-1 record and did not have a losing season.
The Eagles won a fourth national title in 1990 under Russell’s former offensive coordinator Tim Stowers. Then in 2000 and 2001 Paul Johnson led them to back-to-back national championships. They also played for the 1998 National Championship.
Johnson’s teams compiled a 62-10 record in his five years in Statesboro.
“It is an awesome school with a lot of tradition,” Swinney said. “I know they will be excited. They have seven guys from the state of South Carolina that are coming to play us.”
For Swinney, playing Georgia Southern brings back a lot of good memories from his younger days as an assistant coach.
“There is a little barbeque joint, I can’t remember what the name of it was, but it’s where Erk Russell used to always go. I would go to that little barbeque joint and eat,” he said. “I always tried to make it a point to stay in Statesboro at least one of my nights out traveling.
“So, it is a really cool place.”