Editorial: Does Georgia State Belong in the AAC?

Well, it’s official: News broke recently that the University of Connecticut is headed back to the Big East Conference in 2020. This has potentially huge ramifications for the Georgia State Panthers. 

Since joining the Sun Belt in 2013, Georgia State has stuck out like a sore thumb. Although, at the time, their athletic programs mirrored many Sun Belt members, the institution as a whole did not. That discrepancy further increased when the University System of Georgia consolidated Georgia Perimeter College into Georgia State University in 2016, giving the expanded GSU an enrollment that has grown to exceed 52,000 students across seven campuses.

Let’s not pretend that the Colonial Athletic Association (the Panthers’ home from 2005-2013) was a great fit, either. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that a New England-centered league didn’t work very well – at the time, the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Seahawks were the nearest at 420 miles away, with the remainder of the conference 700 miles away or more, not to mention the disparity in institutional size and mission in the CAA, a group of vastly smaller schools, including several notable private institutions.

But back to the Sun Belt. Georgia State University is one of two Carnegie Doctoral R1 institutions in the league, alongside the University of Texas at Arlington. The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education lists and ranks universities according to their level of research funding and activity, among other factors. The most recent 2018 ranking list places GSU among 131 peer institutions with “Very High Research Activity” in the R1 tier such as Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Duke and Emory. In contrast, the following Sun Belt schools are one of the 135 institutions in R2, the tier below classified as “High Research Activity”: Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Texas State, Little Rock, Louisiana and South Alabama. Louisiana Monroe sits in the third tier, “Doctoral/Professional”, while Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and Troy sit in the fourth tier: “Master’s Colleges and Universities: Larger Programs”.

The American Athletic Conference, in contrast, has six of its 12 members in the R1 designation: Temple, Tulane, UCF, Cincinnati, UCONN (for now) and Houston. Of those, Houston, Temple and Cincinnati in particular match up well with Georgia State’s urban environment. Among Sun Belt schools, GSU has the highest enrollment by over 10,000. Central Florida tops the American with 68,571 – were the Panthers to switch conferences, they’d sit at #2. Georgia State’s reported endowment of $166M is much closer to Central Florida’s $183M than it is to Louisiana-Monroe’s $23M, but it’s worth noting that GSU would sit squarely at the bottom of the AAC endowment standings – four schools have endowments greater than a staggering one billion dollars.

Of course, we are talking about athletic conferences after all. Any number of comparisons can be made, but peer institutions in the classroom do not always equal peer institutions on the field or on the court. This is where most arguments in favor of GSU to the American begin to break down.

Let’s get the good out of the way first – Georgia State has been a dominant power in Sun Belt men’s basketball since the day they joined the league, winning conference championship trophies in three of six seasons and conference tournament trophies (and NCAA auto-bids) in three seasons as well. Since beginning Sun Belt play, the Panthers have amassed a 2-2 record versus current American Athletic Conference members, defeating Tulane twice in back-to-back seasons and losing to Cincinnati and Houston in the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Tournaments respectively. 

In other sports since the creation of the American in 2012:

  • Women’s Basketball hasn’t played an AAC opponent since 2013, but they did go a total of 1-1 against UCF in that and the previous year. 
  • Men’s Soccer is 1-2, a win and loss versus Memphis and a loss to UCF. 
  • Men’s Tennis is 2-3
  • Women’s Tennis is 3-7
  • Softball is 3-5

Unfortunately for the Panthers, this is where the competitiveness ends. Football is 0-2 versus current AAC members, losing to Houston (2011) and Memphis (2018) by a combined 22-159. An additional game versus Memphis was planned but never played due to hurricane activity in 2017. Baseball’s lone matchup with an AAC opponent was a 1-10 loss to UCONN in 2018. 

There is some truth to the idea that if Georgia State were to join the AAC, the competitiveness would come from being in a better conference and being afforded the reputation and funding that comes with it. But that would still be gradual and there is no question that there would be some conference growing pains in multiple sports.

The last factor in any conference realignment talk is facilities. As of writing this article, Georgia State’s facilities are not up-to-par with the American. The football stadium is the closest, with a listed capacity of 24,333 and showcasing a lot of potential once all phases of construction are done. But that’s still 20,000 fewer seats than the average AAC stadium, meaning there would likely have to be a seat expansion after the upper deck is renovated in a future planned phase. Basketball and baseball likewise don’t have facilities that will see bigger conferences come calling, with the caveat that both sports have plans for new stadia in the not-too-distant future that would make the grade. If an AAC call were to come, it’s possible-to-likely that the timetable on those facilities would get pushed into hyperdrive.

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. Nonetheless, those future plans and the idea of the AAC getting a footprint in the city of Atlanta and adding another peer institution means this is not a far-fetched idea. Maybe for this round of expansion, GSU is left out – possibly because the AAC stays with 11 members for the time being – but the door is still open for future expansion even if this door closes.

Enrollment and endowment data reflects most recent up-to-date info available from school websites (whenever possible) or major ranking publications. Carnegie Commission rankings obtained from their site, linked in this article. This opinion piece co-authored by the THERSdayNight.com editorial staff.

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