CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - They are the defending champions. They have one of the most celebrated players in Division I-AA, and their coach approaches the numbers recorded by legends.
But to hear the Georgia Southern Eagles tell it, they're the underdogs today against Montana in a 3 p.m. showdown for the I-AA national championship.
"I'm not sure anyone thinks we can win," Georgia Southern coach Paul Johnson said.
Sure, the Grizzlies are the top-ranked team in a division where teams play with a 63-scholarship limit. Sure, Montana boasts a high-profile quarterback, big-time receivers and a stifling defense.
Georgia Southern's players have the us-against-the-world mentality. They're the Rodney Dangerfields of I-AA.
Why? Look at The Associated Press All-America awards. See any Eagle on the first team? Look at the All-Southern Conference team. Did you notice that the Eagles had as many first-teamers as sixth-place Chattanooga?
But the unheralded Eagles are in town, shooting for the top prize in I-AA. ESPN's national television audience and an expected crowd of 17,000 in Finley Stadium can make their own decision about a Georgia Southern football team that earned the third-most first-place votes from league coaches in the Southern Conference preseason poll.
"When we started the year, no one gave us much of a chance to get here," Johnson said.
It was a grave miscalculation. Although 12 starters finished their eligibility last season, fullback Adrian Peterson returned. The junior rushed for 1,361 yards and 13 touchdowns despite missing two games.
Peterson was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, signifying the top I-AA offensive player in the nation. But do you know how many times Peterson won the Offensive Player of the Week award in the Southern Conference?
Once, on Sept. 20, when he shared the award with Furman's Louis Ivory, who won the Payton Award.
But the Eagles won the conference championship. So with supposedly a lack of skilled players, maybe Johnson should have been Coach of the Year in the league. But he wasn't.
Now Johnson goes for his 50th career coaching win. Only two coaches have done that in their first four years: Yale's Walter Camp (1888-1891) and Penn's George Woodruff (1892-1895).
But Johnson shrugs off the accomplishment.
"It's about (the players), not me," he said. "Without them, I couldn't have won one game."
Win No. 50 won't be easy. At 13-1, Big Sky Conference champion Montana has its own fantasy season going. The Grizzlies lost their season opener to Hofstra, 10-9, then reeled off 13 wins in a row.
Along the way, Montana fought off injuries. It rallied late to win several games (Idaho and Cal State-Northridge) and withstood a late charge by Appalachian State to win its I-AA semifinal game 19-16 in overtime.
First-year coach Joe Glenn reminded his players this week that he predicted a trip to Chattanooga when he first met them. He sang a tune, "...OK, men. We've got to shovel the coal in, because Chattanooga here we come."
"Corny, coach, corny," he admits the players said.
It gets worse. Glenn's wife Michelle blows a train whistle at games.
"We're excited to be here," Glenn said. "It's a dream come true, only the whole dream hasn't come true yet."
It's a dream that 3,000-yard passer Drew Miller can make true with another big game. It's a dream that Montana's second-ranked rush defense can make true by slowing down Georgia Southern's high-powered triple-option attack.
But here's a little secret Glenn will tell you. Montana is really the underdog today.
"I would guess if anyone had to put money on it and didn't have to tell anyone, they'd put it on Georgia Southern," Glenn said.
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