Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The FBS has gone through plenty of changes over the past few seasons, realigning countless teams to different conferences for a myriad of on-field and off-the-field reasons.
The furious shuffling continues in 2014 -- Louisville will shift from the American Athletic Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference while Maryland and Rutgers join the now 14-team Big Ten Conference -- but as the landscape alters for bigger name programs, smaller schools get their chance to graduate to the highest level of competition.
College football's recent growth has allowed the FBS to dip into the FCS pool to fill out some of the lower-level conferences. In 2012, Massachusetts, South Alabama, Texas State and UTSA joined the fold. Last season, Georgia State finished its transition to the FBS, joining South Alabama and Texas State in the Sun Belt Conference, and Old Dominion started its transition into Conference USA.
The bar has been set pretty low for new programs in their first season playing up, including Georgia State 0-12 last year.
Two newcomers hope to buck the trend in 2014, however, as the Appalachian State Mountaineers and the Georgia Southern Eagles are set to join the Sun Belt this season.
Appalachian State, perhaps best known for being the FCS program to upset the highest-ranked FBS squad by shocking No. 5 Michigan, 34-32, in Ann Arbor on Sept. 1, 2007, was one of the stalwarts of the FCS during its reign in the Southern Conference. It became the first team win three straight FCS national championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007 (North Dakota State has since matched that feat with titles the last three years).
When legendary head coach Jerry Moore departed in 2012 after eight straight playoff appearances and 18 total in 24 seasons at the helm, assistant coach Scott Satterfield took over. The 2013 campaign, though, was a struggle for the Mountaineers as they finished up just 4-8, their first losing season since 1993.
ASU was already stuck in an unfamiliar position, and now its growing pains are expected to continue at the next level, especially considering the squad has gone 0-6 against FBS competition since that historic victory over Michigan.
The Mountaineers' prospects may be bleak come this fall -- don't expect history to repeat itself when they open the season at Michigan on Aug. 30 -- but there's still some reason for optimism moving forward.
As a true freshman last season, Marcus Cox was sensational out of the backfield with 1,250 rushing yards, 559 receiving yards and 21 total touchdowns. Quarterback Kam Bryant, another sophomore, began last season as the backup before eventually taking over as the starter. He finished the campaign with an outstanding 71.2 completion percentage, throwing for 2,713 yards with 14 TDs to just four picks. These two cornerstones will provide stability to the offense for the next few seasons and are proof that the program is adept at small-scale recruiting.
As for Georgia Southern, it also had great success at the FCS level, winning back-to-back national titles three different times (for a record six titles).
Last season, the Eagles went 7-4 and missed the playoffs for the first time under head coach Jeff Monken, but they added their own historic upset in the season finale at Florida with a 26-20 win, becoming the first-ever FCS team to take down the Gators.
It was an outstanding way to exit the FCS, but Georgia Southern will be virtually starting from scratch with its new chapter. Monken has taken his triple option offensive attack to Army, and Willie Fritz was named his replacement.
Fritz went 40-14 as the head coach of Sam Houston State from 2010-13 (reaching the FCS championship game in 2011 and 2012) and will bring a new philosophy to the Eagles. For a team that defeated Florida without completing a single pass, transitioning to a spread-style offense would be a challenge regardless of the competition, but doing so in a new league will require even more patience.
The transition is bound to be a rough one, but there are a few pieces in place to give the team some hope. Dual-threat quarterback Kevin Ellison returns for his sophomore season after picking up 886 rushing yards and 756 passing yards a season ago and figures to be a nice fit for Fritz's scheme. While the skill positions are in flux, as the team needs to find capable receivers to fulfill previously unused pass-catching roles, Georgia Southern brings back a veteran offensive line that includes three senior starters, an invaluable asset to an inexperienced team trying to keep its quarterback upright.
Although it'll be a tall task in the early going, Fritz is eager to get his team out on the field and begin building toward something new.
"We are very excited about our 2014 schedule as we continue our journey into FBS and the Sun Belt," Fritz said. "Our program is anxious to share the experience and traditions of playing at Paulson Stadium and representing our university in our new league. We look forward to our first opportunity to compete for a Sun Belt Conference championship."
Both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will play full Sun Belt schedules in the fall, but the highlight will come when the old SoCon rivals square off in a nationally televised game on Sept. 25 at GSU.
"It will be great to showcase the Appalachian-Georgia Southern rivalry in prime time," said Satterfield, whose team has defeated Georgia Southern on three straight occasions. "It should be a terrific atmosphere that our players will relish being a part of."
Even in the Sun Belt - widely regarded as the weakest conference in the FBS - it's hard to imagine either Appalachian State or Georgia Southern piling up much success in 2014, but each team's past FCS success has allowed for this opportunity, and a bright future appears to be in store for both storied programs.