It's official — Georgia Southern will make the move to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Beginning on July 1, 2014, GSU will be a member of the Sun Belt Conference, along with current Southern Conference rival Appalachian State.
Georgia Southern won more national titles (six) than any other program in the nation while playing in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) from 1984 until 2012. Appalachian State has won three.
Both teams decided it was time for a new challenge.
"This is simply just too great an opportunity to pass up," GSU President Brooks Keel said at a news conference Wednesday morning, at which the news was made official.
Keel was joined by Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson, GSU Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein and GSU student government president Dominique Quarles at the event.
According to Kleinlein, the biggest change will be GSU's perception.
"From this day forward, we are an FBS program," he said. "No more questions about, 'Do you play Division I sports?' Yes we do."
Football will be the only GSU sport that will lose postseason eligibility during the transition.
The program will not be eligible to win the Southern Conference title in 2013. It also will not be eligible for the FCS playoffs.
Head coach Jeff Monken told the team about the upcoming season's ineligibility on Monday.
"There's an initial shock of, 'What do you mean we don't get to play for anything?' It's the same reaction I had when I found out," Monken said. "I had a chance to get over it, and they will, too. I'm sure there's some disappointment, but what a great opportunity for our football program, to be in this position, to play this last season of an FCS schedule to make a statement about Georgia Southern, and to honor the great teams that have played in the blue and white prior to this season."
Georgia Southern will play its announced SoCon schedule in 2013. The Eagles will play a full Sun Belt schedule in 2014. They will be eligible to play in the Sun Belt title game in 2014, but will not be bowl eligible until 2015.
There will be two six-team football divisions in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern will play in the eastern division with Appalachian State, Georgia State, South Alabama, Troy and Western Kentucky, though reports indicate that Western Kentucky will leave the Sun Belt for Conference USA in the near future.
The western division of the Sun Belt will be Arkansas State, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State and Texas State. NMSU and Idaho will join the Sun Belt for football only, and UT-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock play all sports in the Sun Belt except football.
The two-division setup will allow the Sun Belt to have a football conference championship game between the top team from each division. Currently, the Sun Belt and the Big 12 are the only FBS conferences without a title game.
"Even though Georgia Southern won't be eligible for a bowl game in 2014," Benson said, "if Georgia Southern wins the eastern division of the Sun Belt ..."
"We don't say 'if' around here," Kleinlein interjected.
"I have to be a little more neutral than Tom," Benson said with a laugh. "But what could happen in 2014, if we go to that championship model, the highest-rated team would host. So if you want to set a goal today, the first Saturday in December 2014, the first-inaugral Sun Belt championship game could be right here in Paulson Stadium."
All other Georgia Southern sports will remain eligible for NCAA tournaments and postseason bids. The Eagles will compete in the SoCon until the end of the 2013-14 season and will remain eligible for the postseason.
Upon joining the Sun Belt, Benson said he expects to see the Eagles contending for titles right away.
"I look forward to crowning Georgia Southern teams as Sun Belt champions very quickly, and I look forward to following Georgia Southern teams, student-athletes and fans to NCAA
championships and bowl games very quickly," Benson said.
The right fit
Benson said Georgia Southern was the right fit for the Sun Belt geographically, academically and athletically. When he came to the Sun Belt as commissioner a year ago, he was already aware of Georgia Southern and had it in mind as a future member even before the most recent shuffle of programs.
"Georgia Southern has always been on my radar screen from the time I came to the Sun Belt," Benson said. "Being an outsider to the Sun Belt, my question was, 'Why not Georgia Southern?' ... Even if Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State didn't leave back in November, Georgia Southern and App State were on my agenda to make the move to 12 teams."
Benson mentioned the future eastern division lineup. However, because App State's announcement didn't come until Wednesday afternoon, he had to remain vague about the Mountaineers' admittance to the conference.
It provided Keel and Kleinlein the opportunity for a light-hearted jab at the rival Mountaineers.
"When you look at our footprint," Benson said, "Georgia Southern is going to be in the eastern division with Troy, with South Alabama, with Western Kentucky, with Georgia State and with 'school to be named later.' "
"We often refer to them as 'school to be named later,' " Kleinlein joked.
Keel: "Let me just add, I'm delighted that they are going to be named later."
Benson added that GSU will contribute on the football field right away.
"The Sun Belt just got better, from a football standpoint," he said, "with the addition of Georgia Southern."
Benson provided GSU's representatives with Sun Belt apparel and handed Keel a football with a Sun Belt logo, which was passed around. When it was given to Kleinlein, he made reference to a 1981 news conference, when Erk Russell was announced as the first head coach of the new era of Georgia Southern football. The school didn't own a football at the time, so one was purchased before the press conference across the street at Kmart.
"This one right here, this didn't come from Kmart, I promise you that," Kleinlein said, displaying the ball. "This one came from the Sun Belt."
The Sun Belt does not offer men's soccer, so GSU's team will have to find a new home.
Kleinlein said that the team will remain in the SoCon until a new home is found.
Because the football team will increase its scholarship offerings from 63 to 85, women's sports will have to be added so GSU can remain compliant with Title IX.
Kleinlein said GSU will add one women's sport soon, and another within the next two years.
Rifle, sand volleyball and golf have been speculated as future women's offerings.
The football team will be immediately permitted to begin increasing scholarships. The 63 FCS scholarships are permitted to be separated and offered as partial scholarships, and will remain so through 2013. The 85 scholarships offered when GSU becomes an FBS program must all be full scholarships.
Recently, Keel estimated that GSU would need to increase its athletic budget by $4.4 million to fund this move. Some of that revenue will come from a student fee increase of $75 per semester, which was voted in by the students. The fee will be implemented beginning with the fall semester in the 2013-14 academic year.
The students also voted in a per-semester fee of $25 to expand Paulson Stadium. Kleinlein said he expects construction to begin this summer.
Kleinlein said GSU would start receiving shared revenue from the Sun Belt in 2014.
Georgia Southern will be required to pay an exit fee of $600,000 to the Southern Conference.
Kleinlein expects more revenue and exposure to come from a larger television presence, too.
"When we can play a game on a Tuesday night or a Thursday night or a Saturday in Paulson Stadium, and we can bring ESPN in here, that's tremendous exposure," Kleinlein said, "not only for our university, but it's tremendous exposure for corporate entities around the communities of Statesboro, Savannah, Jacksonville and Atlanta that want to be a part of it."
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.