Growing up in Fort Valley, Ga., roughly 140 miles from the Georgia Southern campus in Statesboro, Louis Ivory had heard plenty about the school's powerhouse football program. He knew the Eagles had won Division I-AA national championships in 1985, '86, '89 and '90. However, while rushing for more than 3,100 yards as a four-year starter at Peach County High, Ivory was not recruited by Georgia Southern. He wound up signing with Furman; there, as a sophomore tailback two years ago, he intended to make the Eagles pay for their slight when his Paladins made the trip to Statesboro. Instead, with 33 family members in attendance, Ivory was held to 44 yards on 16 carries in a 41-38 loss. Making matters worse, Georgia Southern's own sophomore running back, Adrian Peterson, rushed for 197 yards and three touchdowns. The Eagles went on to win another national title, and Peterson became the first sophomore to win the Walter Payton Award as the Division I-AA player of the year.
After Ivory returned home to Fort Valley that summer, he got an earful about Georgia Southern whenever he slipped into the chair of his favorite barber, Donald (Stinky) Mathis. "Everyone would say, 'You know Georgia Southern can't be beat,' " says Ivory.
Imagine the vindication he felt last Nov. 4, when he rushed for a school-record 301 yards and three scores in Furman's 45-10 romp over top-ranked Georgia Southern, during which Peterson stood on the sideline nursing a hyperextended left elbow. The performance helped catapult Ivory to the 2000 Payton Award and left him rubbing his hands over the next time he would sit in Stinky's chair. "I went back and told them, ' Georgia Southern can't be what?' " says Ivory. "The game would have been more interesting if Adrian had played, but it wouldn't have changed the result. He couldn't have made up 35 points by himself."
Maybe not, but when Peterson returned to the lineup for the start of the Division I-AA playoffs, he led the Eagles to their second consecutive national title. Furman, meanwhile, lost in the first round.
With Ivory and Peterson ready to battle for the Payton Award one more time, and with Georgia Southern, Furman and fellow Southern Conference member Appalachian State all ranked in the top 5 of SI's preseason I-AA poll, there's no debating that the Southern is the toughest small-school league in the country. Even some Division I-A schools would agree, especially North Carolina, smoked 28-3 by Furman in '99, and Wake Forest, stung 20-16 by Appalachian State last fall (the Mountaineers' third victory in their last four games against the Demon Deacons).
"Nobody can question that there are a lot of great football players in the South," says Montana coach Joe Glenn, whose Grizzlies beat Appalachian State in last year's national semifinals before falling to Georgia Southern in die tide game. "Everyone goes down there to recruit—even us—because there's so much speed and talent to go around. The Southern Conference schools do a great job finding that speed and talent and then an even better job coaching."
Although the Eagles have won four straight conference crowns, they haven't run the table against league opponents since going 8-0 in 1998. They lost 17-16 to Appalachian State in '99 and won't soon forget the Furman blowout last year. Ivory, a 5' 9", 200-pound slasher who relies on exceptional balance, had touchdown runs of seven, 73 and 37 yards in that game. He finished the year with a conference-record 2,079 yards, a Division I-AA best 189 yards a game (73 yards a carry) and topped 200 yards in a game five times. "We've had some great backs," says Furman assistant coach Bobby Lamb, "but none of them put together that kind of season."
If anyone's capable of matching the feat anytime soon, it's the 5'10", 212-pound Peterson. A bruising runner who picks up a lot of his yards after contact, the Alachua, Fla., native has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the 43 college games he's played and needs 1,454 yards to surpass the Division I career record of 6,553 held by Charles Roberts of Cal State-Sacramento (1997-2000). Moreover, Peterson has been at his best in 12 career playoff games, with 2,266 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns.
It's that postseason record that separates Peterson from Ivory, and Ivory knows it. That's why both players say that while they'd welcome a second Payton Award, they're both after the national championship trophy that the Eagles so jealously guard. "Once they get in the playoffs, they understand that it's win or go home," says Ivory. "They understand that better than anyone in the country. That's what we have to learn."
If the Paladins can beat Georgia Southern at that game, it will give Stinky and the boys back at the barber shop something new to talk about.