MACON — Georgia and Georgia Tech used to be the only shows in the state. Now, there are four Football Bowl Subdivision programs — Tech, UGA, Georgia Southern and Georgia State. All of them had plenty to say on Tuesday at the annual Peach State Pigskin Preview at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
Southern and State, as well as all of the lower-major athletic programs in Georgia, have gone a long way to put themselves on the map. Kennesaw State won’t play football for another year, but the baseball team’s run through the NCAA Tallahassee regional has helped put the program on the national stage as we speak.
“You couldn’t have planned it better,” KSU football coach Brian Bohannon said. “I think that came from above. Everything we’re doing is trying to promote the university and our athletic department, and here you have Kennesaw State making this incredible run on ESPN. Now we’ve got a chance to go to the College World Series. The timing’s unbelievable.”
Mercer went 10-2 in its first football season and will join the Southern Conference next year, after it set the NCAA record for wins in an inaugural season. Mercer was on the nation’s mind in March when the Bears basketball team beat Duke in the NCAA tournament.
“Once that game was over, you walked around with your Mercer logo and everybody knew that logo,” head coach Bobby Lamb said. “That was huge.”
Georgia Southern made arguably the biggest splash on the national stage when its football team beat the Florida Gators in November.
Not to mention last week, when first-year football head coach Willie Fritz heard from all over the country after the baseball team beat Florida State in the NCAA tournament.
“Big time, big time. There were people in Texas and all across the midwest texting me after Georgia Southern beat Florida State,” Fritz said.
The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets are still the household names in Georgia, but as Georgia State hopes to establish itself, Georgia Southern looks to bring its winning tradition to the Sun Belt Conference and Mercer and KSU build momentum, one thing’s for sure — there’s plenty more room at the top.
Johnson dodges a bullet
Georgia Tech will play Georgia Southern in Atlanta this season, and Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson was glad he wouldn’t have to play his former assistant, Jeff Monken, who left GSU for Army last season.
“Any time you’re going up against guys you’ve worked with, you don’t enjoy playing against them,” said Johnson, who wasn’t as familiar with Monken’s offense as he thought. “Besides, I watched some of them on tape this summer, and they were running stuff that’s a lot different from us anyway.”
Fritz and the Eagles will face Georgia Tech on Sept. 13, at noon.
A future rivalry?
Georgia State head coach Trent Miles was asked if he thought there was potential for an in-state rivalry with Georgia Southern now that both programs are in the Sun Belt, and will meet on the football field for the first time this year.
Miles, whose Panthers went 0-12 last season in the program’s first year in the Sun Belt, doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.
“It’s great to have a rivalry, but we have to prove that it’s going to be a rivalry,” Miles said. “It’s not much of a rivalry if you go out and get your butt kicked every year. We’ve got to prove that we can compete against a program like Georgia Southern.”
An emotional reunion
Bobby Lamb was a player, assistant coach and head coach at Furman for a quarter of a century, but was fired in 2010. Mercer then hired Lamb to build a football program from scratch.
With Mercer joining the Southern Conference this season, Lamb will have to face the Paladins. They’ll visit Macon on Sept. 6.
“I’m sure it’s going to be emotional. There’s going to be a lot of people there, and it’s in our place so we get the money from the ticket sales,” Lamb laughed. “But I still have friends on that staff and I’ve spent 25 years at that university as a player and a coach. It’ll be an emotional game. But once you get there between the white lines, it’s all football.”