Our Take on Conference Expansion: A Response

As the Sun Belt Conference leadership meets this week to discuss possible conference expansion, the AJC's Doug Roberson blatantly stirs the pot, giving license to the Georgia Southern fans who persistently make his blog a place that Georgia State fans do not want to go.

In a recent blog post, the AJC’s Doug Roberson asked for readers to submit essays regarding the potential admission of Georgia Southern into the Sun Belt Conference.  Unfortunately, in posting the responses to this inquiry, Roberson made a couple of errors of judgment.  First, he titled the post “Here's why you say the Eagles should join the Panthers in the Sun Belt”.  It may be semantics, but as this was posted on the AJC Georgia State blog, one would think that the “you” in the title would imply that at least some Georgia State fans had replied – this was not the case.  Then, in the text of the post where Roberson pointed out that he had not received any responses from Georgia State fans, he failed to acknowledge the possibility that Georgia State fans simply do not care enough about Georgia Southern, one way or the other, to write an essay about the issue.

Thus, we here at Panthersville face a quandary: do we give credence to the idea by acknowledging the debate, or do we give the issue the silent treatment, hoping that it will go away.  Well, to date, the silent treatment has not resulted in any diminution of the issue, and as Georgia Southern fans have now been given an opportunity to state their case, we are going to state our thoughts on the matter with the hope that our position will be heard by those in a position to make a difference within the Georgia State administration.

First, we must acknowledge that despite it being less than a year since Georgia State accepted an invitation to join the Sun Belt, a lot has changed.  At that time, Georgia State was joining a conference that contained other large-metro schools like Florida International (FIU), Florida Atlantic (FAU), North Texas (UNT) and Middle Tennessee State (MTSU).  Of those schools, three shared top-16 Designated Market Areas (DMAs) (Atlanta is in the top 10).  Those same three schools, FIU, FAU and UNT, are all ranked by the Carnegie Foundation as Research Universities with high research activity.  Georgia State is also ranked as a Research University, but with “very high research activity”.

Fast forward to today and those four schools are on their way out.  Once they are gone, other than Georgia State, the Sun Belt will contain no schools in top-50 DMAs, and only one other school classified as a Research University.  Adding Georgia Southern will not change either of these facts.

The generic response to this line of reasoning is “what does this have to do with performance on the football field?”  Of course, the answer is that it doesn’t – but neither do the primary factors that have been driving conference realignment/expansion in college football.  Like it or not, expansion is about (1) money (markets) and (2) improving the profile of a school.  The Big Ten didn’t add Maryland and Syracuse because of on-field performance, they added them because they were in large markets and they fit the academic profile of the Big Ten.  On the other hand, Maryland and Rutgers were happy to get more money for doing the same thing, and to align themselves with the prestigious Big Ten. The same can be said of the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC and the additions of Syracuse and Louisville to the ACC.

Accordingly, from Georgia State’s standpoint, adding Georgia Southern to the Sun Belt Conference makes little sense.  It would further dilute both the available conference payout and the academic profile of the conference without adding any market or recruiting footprint to the conference.  To contrast with another option, adding Appalachian State would at least expand the footprint of the conference into North Carolina and add a top-50 market in Greensboro/Winston Salem (though it would still further dilute the academic profile).

However, it would be disingenuous of us not to acknowledge that from the standpoint of most of the rest of the schools in the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern is probably a good option.  They are mostly academic and cultural peers, and they have some history in the FCS (formerly Div I-AA) with current Sun Belt members.

Essentially, the question becomes not whether Georgia Southern is a good fit for the Sun Belt, but whether Georgia State is a good fit for a Sun Belt Conference that contains Georgia Southern.  It is our opinion that the answer to that question would be a resounding NO.  Being in a conference with Georgia Southern would be a harsh blow to the improved profile Georgia State has obtained by adding football.  Not only would Georgia State be associated with playing the sub-level football that Georgia Southern is known for in this state, but it would also be aligned with the lower educational reputation that Georgia Southern has – which would be in direct opposition to the goal of increasing the academic profile of Georgia State.

In addition, we would be remiss if we didn’t address the so-called “rivalry” between the two schools.  In our opinion, the “battle of the GSUs”, as some have called it, is not much more than media hype fueled by message board chatter.  It is clear that when Georgia State started football, some Georgia Southern fans took great offense at the use of the acronym Georgia State has had since it became a University in 1969: “GSU.”  Georgia Southern had adopted the same acronym when it achieved University status in 1990 (it is interesting to note that they did not use this acronym the entire time Erk Russell was their football coach - the same period they claim as the foundation of their grand legacy of football), despite their official policy of using the shortened name, “Georgia Southern.”  So, a minority of Georgia Southern fans have routinely infiltrated Georgia State’s fan forums, the AJC’s Georgia State blog, and even CAA and Sun Belt forums to disparage the young Georgia State football program, and claim rightful ownership of the acronym (despite evidence to the contrary) much in the same way a dog starved for attention will defend its self-claimed turf against any threat.

However, the Georgia Southern disdain for Georgia State football does actually go beyond its fans.  Sources within the Georgia State athletic department have told us that Georgia Southern’s administration actively opposed Georgia State’s addition of football and tried to hinder its progress.  When this did not work and Georgia State received an invitation to the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern immediately set in motion a plan to get themselves their own Sun Belt invite and “catch up” to Georgia State.  (The little brother syndrome is so obvious, it is almost embarrassing.)

Despite this, the overwhelming majority of Georgia State fans remain oblivious to the extreme jealousy of a few Georgia Southern fans over the addition of football at Georgia State.  (Before any Georgia Southern fan replies with the classic “you haven’t done anything for us to be jealous about” line, it should be noted that this jealousy is clearly based on how Georgia State’s budget, profile and potential quickly surpassed that of Georgia Southern, despite a lack of on-field success.)  This is because Georgia State fans have always assumed that our football program would quickly move up into the FBS subdivision because FCS simply wasn’t a natural fit for a school with the assets, budget, profile and potential of Georgia State.  Yet, some fringe Georgia Southern fans took it as a personal insult when their school did not receive an FBS invite before Georgia State, ignoring the fact that FCS has always been very much a natural fit for Georgia Southern, and that its attempts to get into an FBS conference, if successful, will require a herculean contorting of its budget and fee structure combined with the desperation of a conference on the brink of collapse.

Some have tried to argue that Georgia State needs Georgia Southern in order to have an in-state rivalry. On the contrary, we think such a "rivalry" would do more harm than good. By being "rivals" with Georgia Southern, Georgia State would never be able to create a sense of being one of the "Big Three" schools in Georgia in the hearts and minds of college football fans in this state. In addition, plenty of schools have primary rivals that are not in their state - Tennessee-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma, Michigan-Ohio State - these rivalries form the heart of college football, and they do not require intra-state play. Even rivalries in the lower echelons of FBS like ECU-Southern Miss, MTSU-Western Kentucky, and Colorado State-Wyoming are all good rivalries that, again, do not involve intra-state schools. Georgia State has plenty of good options outside of Georgia Southern to develop strong regional rivalries. The aforementioned FIU, FAU, and MTSU come to mind, but perhaps the one with the best potential will be UNC-Charlotte when it kicks-off its football brogram by playing Georgia State in 2015.

In closing, the surprises of conference realignment seem to be never-ending, so there really is no telling what will happen next.  What is clear is that while Georgia State has barely scratched the surface of its potential, Georgia Southern probably maxed-out its potential about two minutes before Paul Johnson left the school for a better job. If the two schools do end up in the same conference, it will simply be a sign to Georgia State fans that it is time to move on. Beyond that, it really won't make that much of a difference to Georgia State fans because our sights are set on heights Georgia Southern will never have the capacity to reach.....that's not mean, it's just the way it is.

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