Georgia Southern hopes experience provides edge for playoffs

STATESBORO, Ga. — It’s the third year of Jeff Monken’s reign as head football coach at Georgia Southern.

And each season under Monken, the Eagles have advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Monken hopes the experience provides an edge when fifth-seeded Georgia Southern plays host to Southland Conference champion Central Arkansas on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Paulson Stadium.

“Once you’ve been in that cycle and been part of the playoffs year after year, the kids learn what it’s all about and how to handle the business part of it,” Monken said. “There’s a game to be won and it’s serious business. I think our kids have the right attitude. They’re working hard and our staff is too.”

Monken was hardly a stranger to postseason play when he arrived as coach for the 2010 season. He was part of coach Paul Johnson’s staff, leading the Eagles to playoff appearances from 1997 to 2001.

Georgia Southern won national championships in 1999 and 2000. The Eagles, who played 17 playoff games in the five-year span, lost the title game in 1998.

When Monken left in 2001, Georgia Southern had been to the postseason 13 times in 17 seasons and won six national championships.

Georgia Southern’s football program wasn’t exactly in the same shape upon Monken’s return.

He took over a 5-6 squad that hadn’t been to the playoffs in four years.

But Georgia Southern surprised many division followers by winning 10 games in 2010 and advancing to the FCS semifinals. In 2011, the Eagles shot to No. 1 in the nation during the regular season, won 11 games overall, and again returned to the semifinals.

Thirty Georgia Southern players on this year’s roster competed in both playoff runs. The Eagles will be playing their eighth postseason game in three years on Saturday.

“Not having been to the playoffs (in 2010), I think they might have had that new-kid-on-the-block attitude,” Monken said. “They were thrilled to win the first one, thrilled to win the second one and move on.

“The next year, because they had been to the semifinals, there was more of a determination. (The players thought) we have to find a way to get back to that game and win it. We didn’t do that, but we had more of a veteran-type attitude. I think it’s the same this year.”

It’s a little different scenario for junior Jerick McKinnon, who elevated to starting quarterback this season.

“It’s a different team this year, and different players are playing different roles,” McKinnon said. “We had great teams the last two years, great leaders, but we’re confident in the abilities we have this year.”

McKinnon took over as the starter in the fourth game of this season against Samford and has been the team leader since.

During the last four games of the regular season — against teams with a combined 32-13 record — McKinnon has run for 569 yards and eight touchdowns.

J.J. Wilcox, who moved from slotback to safety this season, might be in a different role, but sees a striking similarity in the three playoff runs.

“Georgia Southern is expected to win national championships so day in and day out there’s pressure,” he said. “I think it’s the same. We’re hoping to go out there, get a win and keep pushing to get over this semifinal hump and come out with a seventh (national championship) flag.”

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CENTRAL ARKANSAS AT GEORGIA SOUTHERN

Records: Central Arkansas (9-2, 6-1 Southland Conference); Georgia Southern (8-3, 6-2 Southern Conference)

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Paulson Stadium, Statesboro

TV/Internet/radio: No TV/ESPN3/WZAT 102.1 FM in Savannah; WBMZ 103.7 FM in Statesboro

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