Georgia Southern has been one of the most interesting off-the-radar stories in college football this season. In their first year as a Sun Belt member, the Eagles might just rise up and win the league; they’re currently tied with Louisiana-Lafayette for first place in the conference, and stand at 7-2 overall, with two losses by five total points to N.C. State and Georgia Tech. It’s not a stretch to say if a couple plays go differently here or there, Georgia Southern is undefeated.
To do that under a first-year coaching staff while moving up a weight class is truly special.
But Georgia Southern may not be able to celebrate its remarkable accomplishments in a bowl game this winter, thanks to the NCAA’s asinine bowl eligibility rules.
For those unfamiliar with the NCAA’s bowl process, it’s incredibly arbitrary. The NCAA actually doesn’t have a stake in bowl season outside of approving bowl games and granting or revoking eligibility. The games themselves are nothing more than exhibitions owned by stand-alone entities, conferences or by ESPN, sustained by a series of contracts between the game and two or more participating conferences. You and a couple deep-pocketed buddies could line up a sponsor, guarantee a multi-million dollar purse and rent a stadium, and the NCAA will rubber stamp your bowl into existence. Just ask the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which only exists because the Cotton Bowl Classic left the Cotton Bowl for the warmth of AT&T Stadium. A local business founded the game, and now ESPN owns it alongside Fort Worth’s Armed Forces Bowl.
Georgia Southern has already won the requisite number of games to participate in one of these glorified scrimmages, but they aren’t currently allowed to play in one because the Eagles are completing a two-year reclassifying process in their move from FCS to FBS. That’s the way the NCAA has always done it, which is all the justification needed for the NCAA to continue doing business this way.
This means the only way Georgia Southern can play in a bowl is if there aren’t 76 eligible teams, allowing the Eagles to backfill a slot left open by another conference. But if 76 teams hit that all-important six-win mark, they’re out of luck.
Why? What purpose does this serve?
As a prospective viewer, I’d be much more likely to watch a game featuring Georgia Southern and its top-ranked rushing offense than the Sun Belt’s fourth-place team play in the post-New Year’s haze of the GoDaddy Bowl.
And how’s this for screwy? As a potential Sun Belt champion, Georgia Southern would be eligible for consideration for the Group of Five’s guaranteed slot in a College Football Playoff New Year’s Six bowl, but still be subject to the NCAA’s eligibility rules. That means the NCAA has created a situation where the selection committee could (theoretically) not have its top Group of Five champion available because too many Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC teams finished 6-6.
How absurd is that?
There is a Change.org petition to get the NCAA to repeal its rule, but that effort has an equal chance of succeeding as the petition to help Arturo the bear relocate to Canada – and nearly a million less signatures.
Georgia Southern has an established, passionate fan base, larger than many schools in the Sun Belt, MAC and Conference USA. Put them in Atlanta, Mobile or Albuquerque, and GATA nation is coming. A first-ever bowl trip reward a deserving team and fan base with a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and sell a lot of tickets in the process.
Which, you know, is purportedly the entire reason bowls exist in the first place.