Originally created 11/20/00

Georgia Southern to play McNeese State in playoffs



STATESBORO, Ga. - The unknowing dulled enthusiasm when Georgia Southern's football players learned they would be playing Southland Conference runner-up McNeese State in the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs.

"I don't even know the colors of their uniforms," said quarterback J.R. Revere, after the selection show televised by Fox SportsNet on Sunday revealed the 16-team tournament field.

But that's not unusual this time of year. Only the most knowledgable I-AA followers, and those with a lot of spare time on their hands, can tell you about I-AA teams from other parts of the country.

And yet, there are basics that tell you everything you need to know on the road to Chattanooga, where the I-AA national champion will be crowned Dec. 16.

"(McNeese State) is from a good league, and I know they'll have a good team," said Georgia Southern coach Paul Johnson.

The third-seeded Eagles (9-2) open defense of their 1999 I-AA championship at 1 p.m. Saturday in Paulson Stadium, a place where they've never lost in 23 postseason games.

If Southern wins, it will meet the winner between sixth-seeded Furman and 11th-seeded Hofstra, also at Paulson.

The only chance of venturing from home until the championship game would occur if Georgia Southern advanced to play Delaware in the semifinals.

"The key for us is to play Georgia Southern football," Eagles cornerback Lavar Rainey said. "We've been doing about the same thing all year long, but the key is to be focused."

Southern found out the hard way what happens when it isn't ready to play. The Eagles were dusted by Furman 45-10 in Greenville, S.C., three weeks ago.

When the pairings were announced, most of the low-keyed conversations focused on a possible rematch with Furman - this time with the Eagles at home and, more importantly, with All-America fullback Adrian Peterson (1,361 rushing yards) in the backfield.

Peterson missed the final two games of the season with a hyper-extended left elbow. Johnson said Peterson should be healthy to return to the lineup for the postseason.

Revere doubted, however, that the team would be looking ahead to Furman.

"I remember last year when everyone looked to a rematch with Massachusetts in the second round," Revere said. "We thought about that the day the brackets came out, but the rest of the week we thought about (Northern Arizona)."

McNeese State, the 14th seed, is located in Lake Charles, La., 200 miles west of New Orleans. The blue-and-gold clad Cowboys finished 8-3 overall, 5-2 in conference play, losing two games by a total of seven points (20-16 to Troy and 37-34 to Northwestern State) after getting blown out by I-A's second-ranked Miami 61-14 in the season opener.

"I think we got a pretty fair draw," McNeese coach Tommy Tate said. "When you look at the bracket, I think the committee did a good job making both sides easy. You're going to have to play the best anyway, so you might as well play them now."

The Cowboys will be without one of their main guns. Leading rusher Jessie Burton is out with a season-ending knee injury. Burton, who tied an I-AA record with seven rushing touchdowns in a game against Southern Utah as a freshman, had 754 yards through seven games this season.

Defensively, McNeese is seventh against the run, allowing just 98.5 yards a game. And the Cowboys have had success against the triple option recently. They beat Nicholls State 12-7 in their regular-season finale. Nicholls runs Georgia Southern's offense.

"I remember back in 1997, we were looking forward to playing (McNeese), but we couldn't get past Delaware," Rainey said. "We know they have a good football team."

That season, the Cowboys beat Delaware and advanced to the I-AA title game before losing to Youngstown State, 10-9.