For years, Georgia Southern and Georgia State competed as conference rivals, going head-to-head in every sport. Even after Georgia Southern left the now-extinct Trans America Athletic Conference, the two programs battled almost yearly in baseball, though they haven’t met since 2007 — a two-game Georgia Southern sweep. They last met in basketball this past season, though they didn’t go head-to-head for nearly 14 years.
Those long absences are about to be turned into much more frequent matchups, as both programs will be league combatants again as Georgia Southern joins the Sun Belt Conference.
The two schools will be conference foes again, beginning this fall. And they will meet for the first time in football Oct. 25 at the Georgia Dome.
“I think it’s going to be a great rivalry,” said Eagles coach Willie Fritz, about to embark on his first season at the helm of the Georgia Southern program. “We’re going to be playing two games up in Atlanta, seven games in the state of Georgia. Playing an institution like Georgia State is going to be great for our university. I know the Georgia Southern people are excited about putting a lot of people in the Dome.”
In their first year of Football Bowl Subdivision competition, the Panthers went 0-12, including losses to two of the Eagles’ former Southern Conference brethren, Samford and Chattanooga.
That winless mark followed a 1-10 season in 2012 that was the last for Bill Curry, the former Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky coach who came out of retirement to help start the Panthers football program.
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder to go out and prove we are a Division I football team,” said Panthers coach Trent Miles.
Miles is about to start his second season with the fledgling Georgia State program, and the Panthers played 15 true freshmen last year, he said. They bolstered their ranks with seven junior college signees.
“Our kids have worked extremely hard,” Miles said. “Our attitude is excellent. Our kids are excited. You’ll see a whole different attitude with our young men.”
Though seven Sun Belt teams finished with at least six wins, only two teams went to bowl games at the end of the 2013 season — conference champ Louisiana-Lafayette, which beat Tulane in the New Orleans Bowl, and Arkansas State, a winner over Ball State in the Go Daddy Bowl. The Mountain West and Conference-USA each had six bowl teams, and the Mid American and American Athletic conferences sent four teams each to bowls.
“Every team except for us was bowl eligible,” Miles said. “We have to prove we’re one of those programs and it’s not going to happen overnight. We have to have patience, but we are going to get there. Hopefully sooner rather than later.”
The Sun Belt is bringing in two of Football Championship Subdivision’s most storied programs — no school has won as many championships as Georgia Southern’s six, and the Eagles also have a record 44 playoff wins. Appalachian State won three straight national championships from 2005-07.
While the Eagles were 7-4 in their final FCS season, 4-4 in their Southern Conference swan song, they did notch their first win over a FBS foe with a 26-20 victory over Florida. The Mountaineers were 4-8, their worst record since 1993.
Also joining the league are New Mexico State and Idaho, who were a combined 3-21 last season. The Aggies have not had a winning season since 2002, and the Vandals last had a winning campaign in 2009.
Miles pointed out the Sun Belt was the No. 1-rated G5 conference — the group of leagues that did not have automatic berths in the Bowl Championship Series games — and the Sun Belt also is adding a third bowl tie-in with the Camellia Bowl.
The Peach, Fiesta and Cotton bowls also will have a spot for a team from a G5 conference, and the Sun Belt also will have a spot in the Cure Bowl, which starts competition in 2015. The Bahamas Bowl and Miami Beach bowls also could have Sun Belt teams on a rotating basis.
In the meantime, the GSU-GSU rivalry will take shape on the football field. The Eagles hold sway in baseball and basketball — Georgia Southern has a 58-17 edge in baseball and a 31-13 advantage in men’s hoops — and Miles readily acknowledges the Panthers will need to make it a rivalry in football. Proximity and conference affiliation alone may not suffice.
“We have to prove that it’s going to be a rivalry,” he said. “It’s not much of a rivalry if you go out there and get your butt kicked every year. We have to prove that we can compete against a program like Georgia Southern. They’ve been an excellent program through the years. I think it’s great for the state and both fan bases and alumni groups and our players to have an in-state rival. But we’ve got to prove that we are going to be a rival.”