This report is part one of a six-part series about the state of Georgia Southern Athletics. It will run Wednesdays throughout the summer. Part one takes a general look at Georgia Southern’s place in the Southern Conference, and the SoCon’s place in NCAA Division-I athletics.
Back in the early 1990s Georgia Southern seemed to be on the fast track to national prominence.
In 1990 alone, the Eagles won their second Division I-AA football title in a row (for the second time in the young program’s history), took a trip to Omaha for the College World Series, and the men’s basketball team was coming off its second of three appearances in the March Madness basketball tournament.
That was when Georgia Southern was a member of the Trans-America Athletic Conference — now the Atlantic Sun — and was an independent in football.
A lot has changed since then.
Since leaving the TAAC in 1992 and joining the Southern Conference, Georgia Southern College became a university and has won two more football titles for a total of six, but hasn’t been back to March Madness in men’s basketball and hasn’t advanced past a regional in baseball.
Obviously, the SoCon was a step up from the TAAC in competition, but with all of the talk of major-conference realignment going on around the nation today, where do GSU and the Southern Conference stand?
Football is an animal unto itself. It is the only SoCon sport that competes in a sublevel of Division I — the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS (formerly Division I-AA).
The Eagles have won eight conference titles from 1993-2004, and a bulk of those came when the league was at the peak of I-AA prominence. With the increase in talent provided by the emergence of the Colonial Athletic Association — which became a football power in 2007 after the football playing schools of the Atlantic 10 joined — the SoCon was offered some competition.
Still, the SoCon remains in the conversation as one of the nation’s elite FCS football leagues and continues sending multiple teams to the FCS playoffs. SoCon teams have won eight Division I-AA/FCS national championships — Appalachian State (3 — 2007, 2008, 2009), Georgia Southern (2 — 1999, 2000), Marshall (2 — 1992, 1996) and Furman (1 — 1988) — and have put a representative in the title game in 10 of the 18 years since Georgia Southern joined the league.
Georgia Southern’s goal within the SoCon is simple — return to the top.
“For a while we were the dominant team,” said GSU director of athletics Sam Baker, who took over the program in 1996. “Now we want to get back to being the dominant team.”
At the Division-I level, the Southern Conference’s most prominent sport nationally is baseball. The league sent three teams to the 2010 NCAA regionals marking the first time in the conference history more than two advanced to post-season play.
Only the ACC, SEC, Pac-10 and Big 12 have sent more teams to the regionals.
The only other SoCon sport to regularly send multiple teams to a regional is golf, which sent three (GSU, Furman and Chattanooga) to the regionals and one (GSU) to the national championship round in 2010.
Track and cross country have had their fair share of SoCon participants in the NCAAs, but, as the rest of the sports go, with the exception of aforementioned golf, baseball and football, they’re all one-bid leagues.
Over the past decade in men’s basketball, aside from Davidson’s 2008 run to the Elite Eight, the SoCon hasn’t put a legitimate contender into the tournament with its automatic bid and hasn’t gotten a team in at large.
“I think when we get to the point when we have two teams in the basketball tournament, then people will start to understand,” said Baker about the league’s progression since Georgia Southern’s inception. “I think there were a couple of years perhaps when we got short-changed by not having two teams in the NCAAs. Davidson with Stephen Curry certainly put the Southern Conference on the map. … I think we’re close to getting that second team into the tournament.”
The league has taken a step forward in improving non-conference schedules with the hopes of improving notoriety with more opportunities for marquee wins.
“A couple of years ago we led the nation in playing Division II opponents,” Baker said about the SoCon’s non-conference schedules, “and we’ve cut back dramatically on that.”
Over the following five weeks, we will take a look at and evaluate each sport through which GSU competes in the SoCon and take a look at the goals and expectations as the 2010-11 athletics season approaches. Part two will run next Wednesday and focus on the “non-revenue” sports — golf, softball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, cross country and track and field.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.
The Southern Conference, like nearly all Division-I leagues, provides an opportunity for its member schools to participate in all Division I NCAA championships by winning the conference title.
The league gets major points for the exposure it provides to its baseball, football and golf programs, but without the opportunity to compete for championships as an at-large in the other sports, the bar is set low.
Programs like Davidson, Appalachian State and GSU show that success on a national level is attainable. Currently, however, that is the exception and not the rule.
So far, with all of the talk about the shift of power happening in the major conferences, the SoCon has been left out of the discussion. It is unclear if or how the changes will affect the SoCon, especially the larger, public, football-playing schools — ASU, GSU, Western Carolina and Chattanooga - so until the dust settles, it’s safe to say that the SoCon is in the middle of the mid-major pack.
Overall SoCon Grade: C-