While nearly every non AQ school in America is putting on its best makeup and prom dress, hoping for a date in the latest conference expansion carousel, I'm convinced that Conference USA should look no further than Georgia State to fill the upcoming gap in their Eastern division.
Georgia State football has played a total of 19 games. The Panthers are 8-11 in those games (including losses to Alabama and Houston). The team has 69 freshmen or sophomores on their roster of nearly 107 players, so they've experienced growing pains like any other young football team in their second season of existence.
"So, I thought you were going to convince me that Georgia State deserves to join a better conference?"
Conference USA and the Mountain West have announced a merger that would currently include 14 teams for football only. This conglomerate does not boast a single Top 10 media market, and the highest profile program is likely either San Diego State or East Carolina. Not exactly the ammunition you need to sell advertisers.
Georgia State University boasts 179,000 alumni, 33,000 students (who bankroll nearly 90% of the football program's budget) and has a President determined to make Georgia State a national name academically. The University received more applications in the years since adding football in 2009 than they had prior five years combined. Football helps.
The Panthers enjoy facilities that would put them on par with nearly every Conference USA school. Georgia State football is lead by a nationally recognized head coach in Bill Curry and is one of only six NCAA programs that play in an NFL facility in the Georgia Dome. Director of Athletic Cheryl Levick has discussed that the Panthers will continue to play in the Dome:
We love the Georgia Dome. It is our home, it is within walking distance [from campus]....we are very happy with playing in the Georgia Dome. It’s also a huge recruiting advantage. High school players love coming to the Dome, playing in a pro setting, it’s been a real advantage for us.
Levick has already made mention of plans that include expanding their football facility to includes a state of the art football only strength and conditioning center, one that already has a donor wanting to pick up $1 million of the tab, and an indoor practice facility. Budget projections for the athletic program are expected to approach $23 million in 2012. Few football programs at the FCS level discuss such things or have budgets of this size.
So why now? Is this talk premature?
On Tuesday, Big East Presidents met and agreed to invite six schools to their conference, including three from Conference USA in SMU and Houston out of the Western division and Central Florida in the Eastern division. As most sports fan know, timing is everything. The conference just lost the Dallas, Houston and Orlando markets, which represent No. 5, 10 and 19, respectively. CUSA desperately needs a Top 10 market to maintain attractiveness for television contracts and bowl tie ins.
The league boasts seven bowl tie ins with the Liberty, Hawai'i, Armed Forces, Beef O'Bradys, New Orleans, Military and TicketCity. These bowl tie ins are subject to change over the coming years as the new BCS system is implemented, potentially sending ripples down the non-BCS bowls.
Conference expansion is primarily about eyeballs as the leagues need television contract revenue. The SEC signed a $2.25 billion contract in 2009. So what about CUSA's, you may ask? The league has a current deal set to expire in 2016 with Fox Sports networks that pays an estimated $1.2 million per year to its members schools.
Georgia State is the best option to replace Central Florida, because in many ways, the Panthers are following UCF's model. Utilize student fees to build the program in its infancy while building fan base and donor support as the University experiences explosive growth (the last two Freshman classes at GSU have eclipsed 3000 students and the school is expected to increase its total student populous to 35,000 by 2013). Atlanta is ranked as the No. 9 DMA for television and radio.
While the conference expansion carousel keeps spinning and may produce some nauseousness, I'm convinced that Conference USA should pick up the phone and call Georgia State President Mark Becker.