By Tim Howard | Contributor
The past fifteen years has seen the Peach Belt Conference – the home of Augusta University athletics – achieve a level of stability and grow like it never had before.
That period saw the conference lose three schools to the NCAA’s Division I, then add five schools – North Georgia University, Georgia Southwestern State University, Flagler College, the University of Montevallo, and Young Harris College – between 2005 and 2012.
The addition of these five institutions put the Peach Belt Conference’s membership at an all-time high of 14 schools – seven in each of the conference’s two divisions, the PBC East and PBC West.
During this past summer, the University of Montevallo announced that it would be leaving the Peach Belt Conference in the summer of 2017 to return to the Gulf South Conference, which it was a member of prior to joining the Peach Belt Conference in 2009.
In their brief stay in the Peach Belt Conference, the Montevallo Falcons men’s basketball team was a consistent contender, winning a regular-season conference title in 2015 and two conference tournament titles in 2012 and 2015. The Falcons advanced to the NCAA tournament every season, peaking in a run to the Division II national championship game in 2012.
Along the way, they started a rivalry of sorts with Augusta, knocking the Jaguars out of the PBC tournament four times – perhaps most notably in the 2010 Peach Belt conference tournament semifinals in Aiken, S.C., when Augusta was the number-one ranked team in the country.
Augusta returned the favor twice in 2011, first by winning a road contest at Montevallo that gave head coach Dip Metress his 300th career victory and then by beating Montevallo in the conference tournament semifinals in Aiken. Augusta advanced to the PBC tournament championship game, which it won.
Though Montevallo was not a geographic rival like USC Aiken or Georgia College, the Falcons were a successful rival, one that could go pound-for-pound against the best of Augusta’s teams in the regular season and the postseason.
Games with Montevallo were always sure to go down to the wire and keep fans in their seats, whether the paper matchup seemed lopsided or even.
With this departure, Augusta will lose a great rival, and the Peach Belt will be back to 13 teams with unbalanced divisions, just as it was prior to the addition of Young Harris in 2012.
Fortunately, there is a possible solution to the balance issue.
The Peach Belt Conference could go after Middle Georgia State College, located in Macon, and persuade the university to make the leap from the NAIA to the NCAA, just as it did with North Georgia and Georgia Southwestern.
Unlike other potential PBC additions in East Georgia and Coastal Georgia, Middle Georgia has more benefits than those institutions.
Middle Georgia sponsors a sufficient amount of programs – men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s tennis, baseball, softball, volleyball, women’s cross country, and club football.
The university has adequate facilities – its basketball venue, Morris Gym, has a capacity of 1,200, and NeSmith Field seats about 2,000 spectators, a large number for a Division II soccer stadium.
Geographically, Middle Georgia would fit perfectly into the PBC West, restoring balance to the two divisions, and encouraging rivalries with nearby Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville and Georgia Southwestern in Americus.
Middle Georgia would be the Peach Belt’s first institution in Macon, giving it a foothold in each of Georgia’s five largest cities.
In terms of enrollment, Middle Georgia would fit well – the university had an undergraduate enrollment of 7,676 in the fall of 2015 among its five campuses.
The split-campus aspect of Middle Georgia could cause minor issues, but North Georgia’s enrollment is split between two campuses in Dahlonega and Gainesville, and it has not caused any notable problems in regards to athletics.
Replacing a successful program like Montevallo so quickly might give the appearance that the Peach Belt is desperate for a new member, but to sustain its size, replacement is necessary.
This process would take several years, as Middle Georgia would have to meet specific criteria to transition from the NAIA to the NCAA’s Division II.
It would take some time for the Knights to field consistently successful teams that could go toe-to-toe with the best of the Peach Belt among all of their teams.
But it has been done before, as Georgia Southwestern captured the PBC West title in 2011 and advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2011 and 2014.
It might seem like a long shot, but one day, Macon could be home to a Peach Belt member.
And who knows, Middle Georgia might become the next thorn in Augusta’s side – or vice versa, of course.
Contact Tim Howard at email@example.com.