CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - This time, Georgia Southern coach Paul Johnson was way off base. His call was not even close.
Johnson is a leader with whom you sometimes can disagree. His penchant to go for it on fourth down often is questioned whether or not the Eagles make it.
But there he sat in the interview room of Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn., wearing a new white cap given to the champions of Division I-AA. When asked where Georgia Southern ranks in the history of the division after capturing the national championship with a 27-25 victory over Montana, Johnson thought for a moment.
"I would think we'd be one of its top teams," Johnson said. "We'd have to be put up there. Maybe we're not the top program, but we're on the bus."
Few might agree with that statement. Montana's on the bus. Delaware is on the bus. Appalachian State and Furman are on the bus.
Georgia Southern is the bus driver.
In four years under Johnson, the Eagles are making mid-December trips to Chattanooga annual pilgrimages. They weren't supposed to be here this season, but as the year went on, they looked more and more as if they belonged.
"It was fun to watch us get better," Johnson said.
Anyone who watched that first preseason scrimmage might not believe the transformation. The offensive line couldn't block. Georgia Southern's highly regarded triple option of the past looked like three chances for disaster.
Some experts around the program conceded that quarterback J.R. Revere never would be the running threat of his predecessor, Greg Hill. They said Revere had the better arm. But after one of Revere's first passes, a throw across the field on an out pattern, was picked off by Lavar Rainey and returned for a touchdown, even Revere's passing was doubted.
Four months and hundreds of repetitions later, the Eagles can scoff at such skepticism. Before Finley Stadium became a quagmire Saturday, Georgia Southern ripped Montana for more than 300 yards and a 20-3 advantage.
When the Grizzlies briefly gained an advantage, the Eagles unleashed their difference maker, Adrian Peterson. One play later, Peterson made the play that was the difference, a 57-yard touchdown run to put Georgia Southern ahead 27-23.
Peterson didn't play against Furman because of a hyperextended left elbow, and the Eagles lost 45-10. Many say that Peterson couldn't have made a difference that day. Southern's players will acknowledge that maybe it was the Paladins' day.
Peterson will be one of 16 players returning for Georgia Southern next season, so making early reservations at the Chattanooga Choo Choo wouldn't be a bad idea.
Johnson talked about the lack of respect Georgia Southern received this season - no first-team All-Americas, only four players on the All-Southern Conference team despite winning the league title outright.
Coach of the Year in the conference went to Mike Ayers, who took Wofford to a fourth-place finish in the league, exactly where the Terriers finished in 1999.
Despite winning few year-end accolades, the Eagles won the national championship.
They won it by traveling to Delaware and overcoming a rowdy crowd and four turnovers. They won it by stopping Montana inside the Georgia Southern 20 on the Grizzlies' final two possessions.
"You know, we talk about how no one expected us to be here, and we fed off that all season, but there were 8,000 (Georgia Southern fans in Finley Stadium) who fully expected us to win," Johnson said.
Former Eagles coach Erk Russell said after the game , "I thought they were terrific."
When asked what was so terrific about the Eagle defenders, Russell said, "They attend Georgia Southern."
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