Editorial: Realigning Our Thoughts on Realignment

Hello, we’re THERSdayNight.com, a site dedicated to covering all things Georgia State athletics. You might remember us from such works as “Editorial: Does Georgia State Belong in the AAC?”, where we spelled out the future direction of GSU Athletics and why, for a plethora of reasons, it should be a part of the American Athletic Conference as soon as it got the opportunity.

Fast forward to October 2021 and the tectonic plates of college football have shifted in a major way. Texas and Oklahoma are on their way to the greener pastures of the SEC, and the AAC’s UCF, Houston, Cincinnati (and FBS independent BYU) have accepted invites to replace them in the Big 12. The big question was going to be which direction the American would take in replacing those three standout schools they’re about to lose. Well, after a slight detour out west, via the failed wooings of Colorado State and Air Force, they’ve landed on a pod of six schools from Conference USA – Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA. Those schools’ applications have allegedly been sent and their acceptance is but a formality at this stage. Instead of standing pat and waiting for more moves or filling a couple schools at a time, the AAC has gone full bore and filled all the way to 14 schools in one fell swoop. Just like that, Georgia State is on the outside looking in.

So GSU Athletics ostensibly had their expansion opportunity and didn’t take it and – if you believe the reporting out there from folks like Matt Brown, publisher of the Extra Points Newsletter – didn’t fight too hard to make it happen:

This would at the surface appear to be a DEFCON 1 situation given what we laid out in our 2019 editorial on this topic. But despite what we fiercely advocated for two years ago and what we still strongly believe with regards to Georgia State’s potential, we’re here to say that’s not the case.

Firstly, any move to the AAC for Georgia State almost certainly would have been preceded by at least one of the schools who got that Big 12 invite leaving. That’s just the reality of how these things go. But I don’t think you would have expected to see all of UCF and Houston and Cincinnati leaving and think that the move was still quite so worthwhile. After all, part of the pitch for Georgia State was joining a conference with peer institutions, both academically but also in the way that schools like Houston and Cincinnati are located in major urban areas. 

Memphis is still a member of the AAC for now and is perhaps the best remaining example of that peer/urban experience mix that was so appealing to Georgia State, along with incoming member UAB. But the basketball programs among the six new additions to the American are, frankly, underwhelming – especially when comparing them to a 2021 Final Four program in Houston and a perennial winner like Cincinnati. Memphis might not be too inclined to stick around since they want to be in the best possible basketball league they can manage. The same goes for current AAC member Wichita State, who can make an even quicker move given they have no football considerations to make. And this isn’t even to mention SMU, who might start fielding calls from the Mountain West if they are similarly disgruntled with the trajectory of the conference. All of this is to say that the conference is volatile and it might not be as appealing as it appears. The current AAC – with those very obvious candidates to bolt ASAP – is a hodgepodge of schools, mostly former members of the fledgling Conference USA, that doesn’t resemble the Mecca that the AAC once was.

And as far as Georgia State’s current conference, the Sun Belt, something notable happened throughout this round of realignment talk. No member-school’s name came up as a serious contender for any moves and it now seems likely that the conference is going to add. The rumors are getting hot and heavy that the Belt will be poaching Southern Miss and Marshall from C-USA. These two would likely take the place of the basketball schools UTA and Little Rock, though that’s still conjecture at this stage. When you put the schools of the new AAC and this new potential Sun Belt Conference down on paper, it’s really not hard to see why Georgia State would want to stay. 

Yes, the obvious difference remains between GSU and most of the other schools in the conference from a makeup and an academic profile – we laid out all the numbers in 2019 and they remain the case today. But it’s a conference that’s been growing in football, of which Georgia State has been a part, and there’s an easy case to be made that the Sun Belt can build on the success it’s had in football and take the mantle as the best G5 conference in the sport from the AAC. The additions of Southern Miss and Marshall would add to that football resume. There’s also growth potential in baseball as Georgia State strives for more improvement on the diamond. The conference already has standout performers like this sport such as South Alabama and adding a school like Southern Miss would help the conference’s profile as well.

The one cause for concern for Georgia State is in its best sport, men’s basketball, where the Sun Belt has languished and is often represented by a solitary low-seeded team each and every March. In the short-term, moving to the American would have benefited the Panthers’ men’s basketball team and given them a shot at competing every year in a multi-bid league. On this front, the team is just going to have to keep winning their way into the NCAA Tournament every March, raise their profile in that way and hope their conference mates can start to give basketball its due. Appalachian State can maybe use their unexpected run to the Big Dance last March as a springboard to more success. Texas State might be poised to hit the next level now that they’ve locked down interim head coach Terrence Johnson as the full-time guy after a 18-7 record in 2020/21. Marshall, if accepted, would be a quality addition in men’s basketball and would raise the bar for the conference and challenge the Panthers. All this is theoretical and Georgia State is going to need more than that. But there’s still more they can do for themselves on the hardwood, i.e. just winning more games, and being in the Sun Belt doesn’t have to be an obstacle to that.

A final truth is that this scenario as laid out in our 2019 piece, which was spurred on by UConn electing to leave the AAC for the Big East, unfortunately still bears true today:

“The bottom line is, this conversation is probably happening faster than Georgia State would like it to. Ideally for the university, the opening would have come after the new basketball and baseball facilities were complete.”

The arena is still a season away from opening and the baseball and softball facilities probably years past that. It’s close enough to see the mockups and get excited, but that only gets you so far when conference commissioners are doing their homework. Georgia State is also in a general state of flux, with new university president Brian Blake only on the job for a few months at this point. 

It might have been that the combination of teams that left the AAC in this round of realignment meant a move for Georgia State didn’t make sense. It might have been the recent institutional leadership shift. It might have been that the facilities were just far enough away to throw up the stop sign. Whatever it was, the timing didn’t add up for GSU and that’s sometimes how it goes. It’s not clear when the next window of FBS Manifest Destiny opens and Georgia State gets another shot at jumping conferences, though it’s worth remembering this round opened up sooner than people expected. But more winning, the completion of the new facilities and the continued growth of fan support are all goals Georgia State wants to fulfill in the short-term anyway and these will be the very same things that make them the right choice at the right time when their moment comes. 

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