All the preseason talk in the Southern Conference was about Georgia Southern, East Tennessee State, Appalachian State and Western Carolina. Nobody said much about Furman and thought the Paladins wouldn't be much of a conference contender.
Last season, Furman started the year 4-1 before dropping five straight games and finishing 5-6, their worst season since 1994.
But with 15 of 22 starters returning this season, Furman has been the league's surprise team and hasn't been stopped since a season-opening 24-22 loss to Elon College. They have won seven straight and a victory Saturday over preseason favorite Georgia Southern could put the Paladins in position to win their first conference title since 1990.
Furman (7-1 overall, 5-0 Southern Conference) has steam rolled past Appalachian State (35-21) and East Tennessee State (48-21), but their most impressive victory -- a 28-3 victory over North Carolina -- happened last Saturday. Those three victories alone are enough to have Georgia Southern coach Paul Johnson worried.
"Their quarterback (Justin Hill) has been pretty outstanding this year," Johnson said. "So has their tailback (Louis Ivory) and Des Kitchens is an outstanding wide receiver. I guess probably the most impressive thing about them is their offensive line. They're probably playing better than anybody in the league right now."
The Paladins are fifth in the nation in total offense (487.3 ypg), fifth in the country in rushing (296 ypg) and 10th in scoring offense (37.6 ppg). Ivory, a former Peach County standout, rushed for 177 yards last week against North Carolina which gave him 1,097 yards on the season, second in the conference behind GSU's Adrian Peterson who has 1,442 rushing yards.
Quarterback Justin Hill and former Wagener-Salley standout Des Kitchings are one of the most dangerous quarterback-receiver duos in the conference.
Saturday's 1 p.m. kickoff at Allen E. Paulson Stadium in Statesboro will be just one of many battles Georgia Southern and Furman have engaged in during the past 15 years.
In 1985, the Eagles beat Furman 44-42 for the school's first national title. But in 1988, the Paladins got even with Georgia Southern, taking a 17-12 victory for the school's first national title.
For the past two seasons, the Eagles have had to beat Furman to win the conference title. Last season, the Paladins played Southern without six defensive starters and dropped a 45-17 victory in Greenville.
"We had a hard time stopping Georgia Southern last season," said Furman coach Bobby Johnson, who's team trailed the Eagles 35-3 at halftime. "We played better in the second half, but we had no chance."
A victory Saturday over the Eagles won't exactly guarantee the Paladins the Southern Conference title and the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs since Furman still has Wofford (5-3, 4-2) and Chattanooga left on its schedule.
But if the Eagles beat Furman on Saturday in Southern's final conference game of the year, things could get a little hairy. Assuming that scenario happens and Appalachian State and Furman win their remaining conference games, the three teams would each have a 7-1 record in the conference and the trio would be declared co-champions.
Since the tie-breaker couldn't be broken head-to-head, a blind draw from Southern Conference commissioner Alfred White would decide which team gets the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs.
"I didn't have to tell them much (about this game)," Johnson said. "If you can't get up for this week, you shouldn't be playing. We already have a good rivalry between (Furman) because of the proximity."
Reach Tim Morse at (706) 823-3216.