With the long-rumored departures of football powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern now official, Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino said the league needs to act quickly.
App State and GSU, with nine FCS national titles between them, announced Wednesday they would join the FBS Sun Belt Conference in 2014. With College of Charleston also gone, to the Colonial Athletic Association, the SoCon will be left with seven remaining members in football and nine in basketball for 2014-15.
“We won’t have a hard deadline,” said Iamarino, “but I would propose that if we’re making moves for 2014-15, we have them in place by June.”
That means things could happen fast. SoCon athletic directors and presidents are meeting in April; regular league meetings are scheduled for May.
Meanwhile, Georgia Southern and App State will be ineligible for the 2013 SoCon championship and automatic berth to the 24-team FCS playoffs as they begin the transition to FBS. They will play an eight-game SoCon slate, but the title will go to the “eligible team with the best league record,” Iamarino said.
That could be a short-term boon to teams such as The Citadel, which was 5-3 in the SoCon last year, tied for fourth behind GSU, App State and Wofford.
“Those teams are very, very good,” Higgins said of GSU and App State. “But from a personal standpoint, after beating them both last year, it’s still about Wofford. That’s our first league game, and Chattanooga and Samford are both on the rise, too. There are still a lot of good teams left to compete with in the SoCon.”
Iamarino said 30 conferences in NCAA Division I have been impacted by on-going realignment, and it seems clear the SoCon will have to raid other leagues such as the Big South or Atlantic Sun to survive. Iamarino called that prospect “distasteful,” but also said, “you have to do what you have to do.”
Another key is holding on to the SoCon’s nine remaining members. That won’t be easy with the Atlantic 10 and Colonial on the prowl, and with basketball power Davidson a popular target.
Higgins said the SoCon should take advantage of similar unrest in the Colonial — George Mason is leaving for Atlantic 10 basketball, and football programs James Madison and Delaware also are rumored targets (of the Sun Belt and A-10, respectively.)
“An interesting league is the Colonial,” he said. “You look at George Mason leaving and what could be happening with their football programs. Richmond and William & Mary are two schools that bring a lot of credibility and are similar to the teams in our league.”
Three schools starting up football — Mercer, Kennesaw State and East Tennessee State — all play basketball in the Atlantic Sun and could be looking for football homes. VMI might be ready for a return to the SoCon, and any number of Big South schools could be in play.
“We have quietly been contacted by enough schools to fill a brand new conference,” Iamarino said. “We will have quality options, I think, available to us.”
It will be impossible to replace GSU and App State with football programs of similar quality. But Iamarino said this could be a chance to upgrade SoCon basketball, which ranked 27th in RPI last season.
“If we assume we’re adding three schools to replace the three we are losing, you don’t get that opportunity often. We could strategically look at what can help us where we need help, and I’ve said I’d like us to get better in basketball.
“But we also have to look at football. We are losing two outstanding programs, and football matters in this league and in this part of the country.”