STATESBORO, Ga. - During the off-season, Georgia Southern football coach Mike Sewak had returning seniors pose for pictures with the Eagles' 2000 Division I-AA national championship trophy.
Most of the seniors were true freshmen during the 2000 season and only a few saw any playing time when Georgia Southern won its last of six titles.
"You can't help but get goose bumps when you're holding that trophy," Sewak said. "I told the guys, when it says 2004, what do you think that will feel like?"
Another fall approaches and the Eagles are looking to add hardware to their trophy case and championship banners to their flag pole at Paulson Stadium.
Georgia Southern players want to mug for more pictures with a title trophy, and they want to read the engraving, "2004."
"It's a dream that can be reached," senior quarterback Chaz Williams said.
Many national football experts expected to see the engraving "2003" on a championship trophy for the Eagles. A year earlier a talented sophomore-laden group advanced to the semifinals of the playoffs before surrendering a touchdown with 46 seconds left against eventual champion Western Kentucky.
Experience would make the Eagles that much better, maybe take their players the distance needed for a title, so the experts thought.
The Eagles finished a disappointing 7-4 in 2003 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
For the first time in seven years, Georgia Southern also failed to win a Southern Conference championship.
For the first time in seven years, the Eagles looked ordinary.
"Because of the high expectations and tradition of our program, many people still think and will probably refer to last year as a losing season at Georgia Southern despite our 7-4 record," Sewak said.
People were unaccustomed to seeing the Eagles even challenged - then they finished with three conference losses, and they were ahead or tied in the fourth quarter of each game.
The Eagles led eventual Division I-AA semifinalist Wofford, 14-7, going into the fourth quarter before being overtaken 20-14. They led Appalachian State 21-14 at the half, only to see the Mountaineers score touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters to take a 28-21 win.
The most disappointing loss, though, might have come to The Citadel. For the first time since 1996 - and for the first time ever in Statesboro - the Eagles were upended by the Bulldogs 28-24 on a last-minute touchdown.
Suddenly, records and perception appear twisted. The Eagles led I-AA in rushing offense last season (335.6 yards per game), but averaged 50 yards a game on the ground less than in 2002.
The Eagles led the Southern Conference in scoring (28.3 points per game), but managed a touchdown a game less than the 2002 squad.
With nine starters back on offense and nine on defense this season, Georgia Southern was picked to finish third in the Southern Conference in polls by league media and coaches. The Eagles were picked ninth nationally in the preseason.
With six starters returning on both offense and defense in 2003, Georgia Southern was a unanimous pick to win the conference and earned a No. 2 ranking in polls nationally.
"It doesn't matter where you start," Williams said. "It's where you end."
The success or failure of the Eagles' triple option offense begins with Williams, who missed almost four games in 2003 with torn right knee ligaments.
His sensational 2002 season (1,422 rushing yards, 1,022 passing yards, accounting for 36 touchdowns) thrust Williams' name amid the school's great quarterbacks.
Junior fullback Jermaine Austin (1,461 rushing yards last season) earned the league's Offensive Player of the Year honor a year ago.
Slotbacks T.J. Anderson and Kevin Davis provide threats on the outside. Freshmen speedsters Marquice Maynard and Lynon Jefferson could be key contributors.
The offensive line is anchored by senior tackles Paul Collins and Albert Turner and sophomore center Lance Wayne.
Leading receiver Teddy Craft (15 catches, 289 yards) is also back.
Defensively, first-year coordinator Joe Tresey has inserted an aggressive scheme to shore up a unit that allowed its most points (21.1 ppg) since 1998.
Tresey's only had 15 practices in the spring to work with the defense, but his theories are being embraced.
"The kids are back in a great frame of mind," Tresey said. "Their retention has been excellent. We've been able to pick up where we left off in the spring."
Tackle Eric Hadley (five sacks) and linebacker Derrick Butler spearhead the 4-3 alignment. Three-year starter James Young, a free safety, leads the secondary.
True freshman Patrick Bolen should inherit the placekicking duties. Big-play returnmen Lewis Barr and Craft are back.
Another true freshman Roger King could make an impact as a returner and a cornerback.
"We have a team that is capable of great things, but leaders will have to step up," Sewak said. "I'm excited about the potential of this team."
Colors: Blue and white
Conference: Southern Conference2003 record: 7-4, 5-3 (third)
SoConStarting offensive returnees: 9
Key offensive players: QB Chaz Williams, FB Jermaine Austin, WR Teddy Craft, OT Paul Collins, OT Albert Turner
Starting defensive returnees: 9
Key defensive players: DT Eric Hadley, DE Victor Cabral, LB Derrick Butler, FS James Young, CB/RS Lewis Barr.
A short synopsis of what can be expected of Eagles from the area this season:FB Brandon Andrews, Swainsboro, junior. Enters the season as the backup to returning Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year Jermaine Austin. Will see significant playing time.
WR Osmond Brinson, Evans, freshman. Walked onto the team. Expected to add depth to the receiving corps.
P Daniel Jordan, Greenbrier, redshirt freshman. Made a name for himself during spring practice. Of three guys competing for the punting job, he is considered the front-runner.
WR Johnny Los, Lakeside, redshirt freshman. Former Panther walked onto the team and should compete for time as a backup receiver.
WR Henri Lee, Aquinas, junior. Walk-on will compete in fall practice, but most likely will play on the scout team.
LB Justin Callaway, Thomson, freshman. Role will be determined after fall practice. Most likely will be red-shirted.
OL Jesse Suarez, Westside, redshirt freshman. Workhorse begins the season as backup center.
OL Lance Watkins, North Augusta, redshirt freshman. After sitting out last season, he will get game experience as the No. 2 right guard.