Five-a-Side: Georgia Southern's Jeff Monken

A question was asked of Georgia Southern record six national championship teams.

Monken's answer was nearly one of awe. The 1985 team, he said, is revered around Stateboro, Ga.

"People in this town still know the names and the jersey numbers and the hometowns of everybody on that team," he says.

Monken hopes some of his teams can carve such a place in GSU lore.

The Eagles program, which has a record 41 playoff wins, dropped off considerably after its big run of championships between 1985 and 2000. The Eagles were even an uncharacteristic 21-23 in the four seasons from 2006-09.

Monken, who was an assistant on the 1999 and 2000 national championship teams, then returned as head coach last year and got the program back to a high level - quicker than anybody envisioned. The Eagles made the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and won three times en route to the semifinal round.

While last season's run was like a dream ride, the Eagles face much bigger expectations this year. The Eagles (9-2) won the Southern Conference title and are the No. 3 seed, set to open play in the second round Saturday against an Old Dominion squad that is 10-2 and coming off a 35-18 win over Norfolk State in the first round.

In Five-a-Side - In the Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - Monken discusses the Road to Frisco that his team is jumping on.

Let's kick off:

TSN: How has the identity of this year's team developed from your first season back a year ago?

JM: We're really a very similar team to what we were a year ago. (It's) just a group that really tries to work hard and play hard and do the best that we can. We don't claim to be more talented, bigger or faster or more athletic than anybody else. We've certainly faced a lot of teams in the two years we've played here together that have been bigger and faster and more athletic. We just try to play as good as we can together as a team and just keep pushing week by week. We try not to really get too much into (it) with the kids that, 'Hey, we're a better team,' or 'We're more talented than them,' or 'Gosh, they're so much more faster and bigger and more talented than us.' Just each week try to be the best team and the best team that we can be. And our kids have done a good job with that. They play together really well and they work hard.

They're hopefully a little more confident going into these playoffs by knowing what it's all about, at least having had experienced it. We didn't have anybody on our football team last year when we went into the playoffs that had ever experienced a playoff game. That was different for them. Now having been through it last season - this isn't the first go around, at least for the veterans - hopefully, that will help them.

TSN: With that in mind, as you played one game to the next, how did your players get acclimated to being in the playoffs and learn during that process?

JM: We were just so glad to be in the playoffs, we felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to be there, that our guys were just playing for an opportunity to play together one more time, just play another Saturday together. We've got a team that really cares about each other. I think they generally enjoy playing on Saturdays together.

I don't know if they really put a lot of - and we didn't (as coaches) - talk into the fact that it's the playoffs, it's do or die. Hey, play as hard as you can play, play the best you can play, let's try to be the best team we can be on Saturday and see if we can play one more time together.

TSN: Is there an aspect of your team that gets overlooked?

JM: I couldn't say. I try not to overlook any aspect and try to make sure our staff and myself, that's our job to make sure that we've got a handle on everything that goes on. Outside of the confines of this building and our practice field, I don't know what would get overlooked.

TSN: Your team's schedule has gotten much tougher in the last month than the first two months of the season. How do you think your team has handled that?

JM: I think we play in a really tough league. People like to compare leagues at every level. Who's got the best league, and who's this and that? You know, there's a lot of good teams in a lot of good leagues. I think the Southern Conference is a good league. Samford had a tough, good football team, we opened up with them, and I thought they had a really football team. Early on we played Western Carolina, they struggled this year. We had Elon and they slugged around in the league and beat some people. Chattanooga was as good a football team as anybody in our league. I'm sure nobody is more frustrated than Coach (Russ) Huesman and those guys up there. They really had a good football team, probably as good a defensive team as anybody in our league and maybe as good a defensive team as anybody we've played at this league this year, and they ended up 5-6.

We had App (Appalachian State) on the road. Very good, tough football team and everybody recognizes that. The Citadel, they played everybody tough, we had to go to the wire, 14-12 with them. We played Furman about midway through the year, we beat them very handily. And after beating us, they go and beat App and they beat Wofford. They had Florida down (22-0) in the first quarter. That's a good football team.

I think everybody along the way was, probably like us, getting better, and you improve as the season goes along. It just so happens that two of the last three games in our league were with the other two playoff teams, that being Appalachian State and Wofford, and Wofford's got an outstanding team.

And then we played Alabama. And a lot of people in our league had games like that. The Citadel played South Carolina, Furman played Wofford, Samford played Auburn. It happens that Appalachian State had Virginia Tech in the beginning of the year.

I think along the way, there were tough teams all the way through. It gets tougher at the end because everybody is better.

TSN: Old Dominion won this past Saturday and your team had the bye. What are some of the positives and negatives about that for your team?

JM: Well, positive being the fact that we had a couple of weeks to rest and not have to get geared up and get in that game mode. We had an emotional loss at App, we come back and had to fight tooth and nail to beat The Citadel. And that's draining. We put a lot into the Wofford game, which was for the conference championship. And you go and play Alabama, which is one of the best teams in college football, and get beat. It's not an easy stretch, as you eluded to, those are tough games. To not have to get geared up like that, because the playoffs are a do-or-die situation, was good for our guys to just get some mental and emotional rest. But we also had two weeks to practice.

The disadvantage is just that, you don't play. There's a little something to being on a roll and kind of getting that confidence (of) the first win in the playoffs. I liken that to our first-round game last year. We won and we had won the last three regular-season games ... and we were kind of on a roll and the kids just were able to keep it going. That may be a disadvantage for us.

There's bye weeks throughout the season. Sometimes a team has a bye and the opponent doesn't. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's not. Hopefully, this will be an advantage for us. They've got a great football team. We're going to have our hands full for sure with this football team from Old Dominion.