If you haven’t kept up on the uniquely metamorphosing Georgia State football program, it goes something like this:
The Panthers started playing games in 2010. Their first schedule of Colonial Athletic Association games is this season (Year 3). But they’re not eligible for the CAA championship because they’ve already decided to jump to the Sun Belt. The NCAA’s mandated two-year transition to FBS means they can’t compete for championships or bowls until 2014 — not that it was realistic anyway — which effectively means they will have played four years of exhibition games (45) by the end of 2013.
And you thought the NFL preseason was long.
There’s an obvious advantage to this: New programs typically get beat up, and Georgia State has been no exception to this. So this extended stretch of unofficial-ness allows Georgia State athletic director Cheryl Levick to tell prospective donors, “Don’t worry, it’s just growing pains. Just wait until the games really count. Would you like another shrimp?”
But the downside is equally obvious. Georgia State is moving up quickly, maybe too quickly. It wasn’t that long ago when the school didn’t even own a ball, a helmet or a roll of tape. The Panthers struggled against FCS teams. The Sun Belt is going to seem like the NFC East. Sure, you laugh, but the Panthers last season lost 56-0 to a team from Conference USA (Houston), 40-17 to one from the CAA (Old Dominion) and 48-28 to another from the Ohio Valley (Murray State). Nothing screams, “Next, we take Eastern Europe!”
Bill Curry won’t be around for the pain next year. He coached the final season opener of his career Thursday night when Georgia State was drummed by South Carolina State 33-6. The Panthers’ lumps will continue well into Curry’s retirement. Given what another 1-AA program just did to them, imagine what will happen when they start playing FBS programs on a regular basis.
Georgia State has had only two more lopsided losses and both came to FBS opponents, Alabama (63-7) and Houston.
“It’s happening way faster than you would like for it to,” he said. “But in today’s world of college football, you don’t get to choose a timetable. You would like to have the time to be able to build the rest of the elements of this program. You’d like to be able to do that over a six- or seven-year period like most of the other schools did. But in this day and age you either jump on the wagon or you’re left in the dirt.”
Georgia State didn’t make a football decision, it made a financial one. Competing at the FBS level, even while getting hammered, potentially provides more selling points during fundraising. The move to the Sun Belt (with Southeast-based institutions) also makes for less expensive travel for all of the sports programs than the CAA, whose members include campuses seemingly in another galaxy (Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island).
“In a time when there’s such a financial crunch, even when a lot of the so-called big-timers are operating in the red, we didn’t have a choice but to get into the Sun Belt,” Curry said. “We’ll just have to suck it up and do what we have to for a couple of years until we can compete.”
Some of the problems of a young team were evident early against South Carolina State, an FCS school that has played football since 1907. (If you’re keeping score, the age difference Thursday was 105-2.) A Georgia State cornerback, Isaiah Howard (sophomore), fell on the fourth snap of the game, allowing South Carolina State to complete a 78-yard touchdown pass to make the score 7-0. A sack and resulting fumble by Panthers quarterback Ben McLane (freshman) on the Georgia State 23 with just 40 seconds left in the half set up another Bulldogs touchdown, increasing the visitors’ lead to 14-3.
Here’s another problem: Attendance for the season opener was announced at only 18,921. Most of the student section behind one end zone was gone by midway through the third quarter. What does it say when a fan base is so quick to bolt?
Curry is hoping for the best this season, but he’s also a realist.
“We’re tougher physically, mentally and in every other way,” he said the other day. “Now we just have to be able to play football better. Those don’t always go hand-in-hand, but it sure helps.”
It will turn one day. But Georgia State shouldn’t get the idea of moving up again for a while.
By Jeff Schultz
Some selections from the jukebox