Georgia State football was new last season, and new is almost always fun. This year stands to be more successful — having gone 6-5 in 2010, the Panthers should better that — but less noteworthy. The novelty is gone. What’s left is a college team trying to carve a niche in a market not lacking diversions.
The Panthers played their first-ever game Sept. 2, 2010, drawing the surprisingly robust total of 30,237 patrons to the Georgia Dome. That was, however, the maiden voyage’s emotional crest. In six subsequent Dome games, Georgia State didn’t once break 17,000.
Year 2 for GSU began Friday night, and it wasn’t quite the same. The Dome’s lower bowl, which accommodates 28,155 and was packed on Opening Night 364 days earlier, was only two-thirds full. (And the “visiting” team was Clark Atlanta, which sits within the Dome’s shadow.) You could argue that there’s a lot happening this holiday weekend — Georgia Tech and the Falcons played Thursday; Georgia faces Boise State on Saturday; the Braves are at home and there’s DragonCon and NASCAR to boot — but that’s the issue.
This is Atlanta. We’re a big city. There’s always something happening. (If you don’t count the NHL, which is gone again.) Georgia Tech plays in a BCS league and has graced 14 consecutive bowls but has had a hard time filling its seats. What’s going to happen two, three, 10 years down the road for Georgia State?
“We took a gigantic leap last season,” said Cheryl Levick, GSU’s athletic director. “We have to take another leap this season to get ready for the CAA.”
GSU begins conference play in the Colonial Athletic Association next season, which means the schedule — last year it included everyone from Lambuth to Lamar to Alabama — will stabilize. Still unclear is whether the likes of Delaware, Richmond and William & Mary will move the attendance needle. And if you’re thinking, “Hey, there’s more to college football than attendance” … you’re right. But it’s hard to run a successful program on good will.
“We needed to establish a quarterback and a running game and a defensive front tonight,” Levick said. “That’s [the coach's] job. Cheryl’s job is to make sure the program takes the same leap. We’ve got 8,500 students here, and that’s hugely important on a Labor Day weekend.”
Georgia State has worked hard (and well) to establish itself as a serious university. Enough people connected with the school believed football could build the brand and enhance the GSU experience. But the question remains: Will enough people ever care about this program to render it more than a footnote?
We can’t know the answer today, and we might not know it five years hence. But one thing we can know: Georgia State hired a good football coach in Bill Curry and he has produced a team that hasn’t embarrassed itself. (Take away the 63-7 loss in Tuscaloosa last November and GSU has been competitive in every game it has ever played.) If you watch these Panthers, you won’t see a bunch of guys who can’t line up onside. You’ll see a purposeful little team.
Georgia State handled Clark Atlanta with dispatch. If you hadn’t known this was the first game of the second season of GSU’s existence, you couldn’t have told it by looking. And there’s reason to believe, Levick said, that better days are ahead. “I have to see progress,” she said.
She mentioned the 21,000-square foot practice facility that has been built. She noted that another big donor had just stepped forward, cash in hand. Again, she noted Friday’s crowd. “I’m not disappointed,” she said. “I’m delighted we have 20,000.” [Announced attendance was 26,273.]
Then this AD, who’s as driven in her way as Nick Saban is in his, said: “We want to be competitive. We want to win. We’re not here for fluff.”
By Mark Bradley