Roughly 23 months ago, Georgia Southern took SEC power Georgia down to the wire in what was supposed to be a paycheck game. Saturday, the Eagles lost to a UMass program that has never won more than three games in a season as an FBS member by five touchdowns.
Second-year Georgia Southern head coach Tyson Summers has overseen one of the most dizzying declines in recent memory — well, save the last time Summers coached there, in 2006.
Summers was an assistant in Brian VanGorder’s one, dismal season as the Eagles head coach. Under VanGorder, the longtime FCS/Div. I-AA standard-bearers abandoned the identity that produced championship football under Erk Russell and Paul Johnson. The result was an immediate dip from an 8-4 finish with their customary appearance in the FCS Playoffs, to 3-8 and a next-to-last placed finish in the Southern Conference.
While there were lows in the VanGorder “era,” like a season-opening loss to Central Connecticut State, the Eagles hung tough with such opponents as national champions Appalachian State. Nothing from 2006 compares to a 55-20 loss to a previously winless UMass.
Taking a look back at Comis finding Britt in the end zone for another TD after fumble recovery! pic.twitter.com/fnLpe6E03P
— UMass Football (@UMassFootball) October 21, 2017
That isn’t merely a low for Georgia Southern; that qualifies as rock-bottom for just about any program in FBS.
It’s rather perplexing Georgia Southern brass repeated this bit of history, after Jeff Monken (now winning at Army) restored the program. It then transitioned to FBS without missing a beat, winning the Sun Belt Conference championship in 2014, then reaching a bowl for the first time in program history the following season.
With 17 regular-season wins over his two regular-season campaigns in Statesboro, Willie Fritz’s being pursued by programs with deeper pockets and more resources was an inevitability. Georgia Southern nose-diving so dramatically, so quickly, was avoidable.
Georgia Southern has a very clear blueprint for success, one that’s produced results across decades, coaching changes, and subdivisions. When deviating from that blueprint under VanGorder and Chris Hatcher, the Eagles floundered — and the Tyson Summers experiment has taken Georgia Southern to rock bottom.
Oddly, in the same year that Tulane poached Fritz, Mike Houston was coming off a wildly successful run at Georgia Southern’s former SoCon counterpart, The Citadel. Houston moved within FCS to James Madison, where last season his Dukes won a national championship. They’re on course to repeat, if all goes according to plan.
Houston’s one of the best off-the-radar names in the coaching ranks as a result, and I suspect now out of Georgia Southern’s league. A program on the rise early into its FBS tenure needlessly became the biggest rebuilding job in the subdivision.