Georgia State’s leaders say they have some concerns about the Sun Belt, which recently lost two schools to a rival conference, but seem confident that the conference will emerge at least as good as it was when they joined just a few months ago.
“We are concerned anytime teams leave the conference and we have significant change,” Georgia State president Mark Becker said. “We will be working with the commissioner (Karl Benson) to ensure the Sun Belt is well-positioned as a competitive conference.”
Benson said he plans on replacing Middle Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic, which recently resigned from the Sun Belt and will join Conference USA in 2014. But Benson declined to offer any specifics because he said he has yet to begin the process. He said it may start as early as Friday.
“I have faith in commissioner Benson,” Georgia State athletic director Cheryl Levick said. “We will figure out the right plan. I still feel that we are in the right conference. I still feel that we can be very successful in football and I still feel that we can be very successful in the Sun Belt.”
Georgia State announced in April that it was joining the Sun Belt as a full member on July 1, 2013. The decision was made for many reasons, including the desire to play football on the FBS level and to create more rivals created by proximity, something it didn’t have in the Colonial Athletic Association, whose closest team was seven hours away from Atlanta.
Florida Atlantic, which is farther away from Atlanta than the CAA’s Virginia-based teams, likely wouldn’t haven’t been a rival. Middle Tennessee State, located less than four hours away near Nashville, could have been.
There have been reports of New Mexico State and Idaho joining the Sun Belt. Their background as FBS schools may improve the conference’s credibility in football, which was strengthened this year by four teams making bowl games. One of those teams, Arkansas State, just lost its head coach to Auburn.
But their potential inclusion wouldn’t help Georgia State’s desire to have more regional rivals. Moscow, Idaho is 2,400 miles from Atlanta and Las Cruces, N.M. is almost 1,500. Their fans likely wouldn’t travel to the Georgia Dome.
There is at least one partial solution, though, and Georgia State could benefit.
Georgia Southern, which plays football on the FCS level in the Southern Conference, has expressed an interest in talking to the Sun Belt and playing football on the FBS level. The Board of Regents recently approved two new student fees to assist in that move. One fee increase of $25 would fund an expansion to Paulson Stadium. The other fee, a $15 redirection of an existing $154 fee, would go toward constructing a football operations center.
The Eagles wouldn’t bring a large media market (the closest major city, Savannah, is No. 92 in Nielsen’s estimates), but they would bring a passionate fan base that would most likely increase Georgia State’s attendance whenever they would play at the Georgia Dome. The addition would create an instant rivalry for Georgia State and may improve the interest in Atlanta in all sports for both universities.
Some Eagles fans are ready to make the move.
“It is going to happen and I do think it is good for the program because it represents stepping up to a higher level, one in which I am confident we can be competitive,” Bill Bomar (Class of 1989) said. “Erk (Russell) preached that we should always compete at the highest level in which we can be successful.”
There are other schools that could be added that would be competitive in football and create rivalries for Georgia State: Appalachian State (5 1/2 hours away from Atlanta) and Jacksonville State (2 hours), for example, have also been speculatively linked to the Sun Belt. Their proximity would also reduce travel costs for all of Georgia State’s sports. Georgia State projected it would save $150,000 a year in travel costs competing in the Sun Belt compared to the CAA. That savings would likely be wiped out if Idaho and New Mexico State are added, unless the conference keeps expanding and divisions are established.
Becker declined to speculate on what might happen within the Sun Belt, though he said it would be natural to anticipate change.
Levick declined to say if she would prefer a geographic rival like Georgia Southern, which may help create more interest in the programs, or a team from a larger media market, which may help the conference eventually land a more lucrative TV contract. She said there are many factors in play, including revenue sharing.
“I want to look at the options and weigh what’s best for Georgia State and what’s best for the conference,” she said.
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu