The futures of Georgia State’s, Georgia Southern’s and Kennesaw State’s football programs may become slightly intertwined in the next few weeks.
Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson, along with his schools' presidents and athletic directors, may help untangle and clarify things directly for the Panthers and the Eagles and indirectly for the Owls when they meet March 9 during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Hot Springs, Ark.
Georgia State joined the Sun Belt, effective July 1, because it wanted more regional rivals. That wish, and the need for the Sun Belt to expand, may set up an opportunity for the conference to add Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, current members of the Southern Conference. If they were to leave, that might open the door for Kennesaw State, which just announced it is adding football but has no conference home, to move to the Southern Conference.
Benson’s conference has eight football-playing members. It can remain at eight, but by doing so it remains exposed if it were to lose a school to another conference. The Sun Belt could use at least 10 to ease scheduling and at least 12 to stage a championship game. Benson hasn’t said which schools his conference is considering, but it has been speculatively tied to four: Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, along with Idaho and New Mexico State, who are independents. The earliest any team could join is 2014.
Georgia Southern athletic director Tom Kleinlein said he has spoken with Benson. Kleinlein said that “the Sun Belt is the best fit for Georgia Southern” because of regional rivalries, academic similarities, a strong brand and other desirables. He noted the success of Sun Belt football last season, when it sent four teams to bowl games.
The Eagles, winners of six FCS national championships, have been gearing up for a move to the FBS. The Board of Regents approved two fee increases in November: one for $25 per student per semester that will go toward expanding Paulson Stadium from 18,000 to slightly more than 20,000 seats. The second is for $75 per student per semester and will be instituted only if the Eagles play FBS football.
Kleinlein called a rivalry with Georgia State in the Sun Belt “very appealing.” He noted the possibility of incorporating corporate sponsorship of an all-sports trophy that the universities could compete for annually.
Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino said he’s aware of the Sun Belt’s alleged interest in Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. Because conference realignment has been going on for several years, his conference has put together a list of attributes they would look for in a school should they need to add members.
Though they haven’t spoken to Kennesaw State, he said the university would seem to fit what his conference is looking for from a mix of academics, the competitiveness of all of the teams, its location and the fact that is adding football. He stressed that his conference hasn’t done a lot of research on any particular school.
He did say that Kennesaw State’s lack of football history shouldn’t be considered a negative.
“You always want to do the best you can looking at potential members,” he said. “I don’t think being a start-up program is going to be viewed as a deal breaker.”
Kennesaw State athletic director Vaughn Williams described the Southern Conference as a “great conference with great tradition” but declined to say anything else about a future home.
The dominoes could start to fall soon if the Sun Belt agrees on who it wants to add. Conference bylaws require a super-majority vote of the 10 school presidents to approve an invitation. Georgia State's Mark Becker will be allowed to vote. If a decision is reached, invitations could be extended by as early as mid-April (which was when Georgia State agreed to join last year). But they must be extended and accepted by June 1, which is the NCAA’s deadline for accepting applications on moves from FCS to FBS.
The possible addition of Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, which has won three FCS national championships and plays in a stadium that seats 24,000, would restore geographic balance to the Sun Belt after the losses of Middle Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic to Conference USA. The East division could be composed of Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Troy and South Alabama. Most would be mostly easy drives for Georgia State fans and fans of those schools coming to the Georgia Dome, and such an alignment would create needed regional rivalries.
The West division could be composed of Western Kentucky, Texas State, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette. If Idaho and New Mexico State are invited, one of the teams could shift to the East.
Though he’s not sure what will happen, Kleinlein can’t seem to wait.
“As quickly as possible,” he said when asked his timeline. “Right now it’s hard waiting. We appreciate the relationship we have with the Southern Conference. It’s a great conference to be a part of, but it’s our desire to grow a little bit.”