Photo by Ben Beitzel

Photo by Ben Beitzel

ATLANTA -- Ever since Georgia State announced it was starting a football programs just over two years ago, the "Countdown to Kickoff" began.

With 29 days remaining until the Panthers' inaugural season begins with the Sept. 2 opener against Shorter at the Georgia Dome with the program's first media day and first day of practice, the countdown -- also called the "Countdown to Touchdown" -- is now called the "Countdown to History."

"We're a little fanatical about all these countdowns," GSU athletics director Cheryl Levick joked while introducing Panthers coach Bill Curry to the large media turnout Wednesday.

For many of the players who were with the program as it went through a year of practice last season, like Buford grad Ben Jacoby, the countdown can't get to zero soon enough.

And Monday's opening of the first official preseason practice was a welcome milestone.

"When I finally decided (to come to GSU), (the first season) was so far in the distant future," said Jacoby, the Panthers' starting center coming out of spring practice after transferring from Ball State a year ago. "Now that it's right upon us, it's so much more real."

Having had to deal with plenty of reality since building up the program from nearly day one, Curry has a different perspective on how fast the first season is approaching.

"I learned something a long time ago from a really wise man," said Curry, who welcomed 90 scholarship and walk-on players to campus Tuesday night. "We had (an assistant) coach at Alabama named Homer Smith. ... We were just starting spring practice (one year), and ... he gathered the offense and said, 'Now men, it's March 3. We'll be running on the field at Temple University,' where we were opening up the season in Philadelphia that year, 'We'll be running on the field before you know it.'

"He was right, and I never forgot that. It seems like it's gone fast."

The time Curry will have to incorporate 17 true freshman who were part of GSU's second recruiting class, plus several transfers -- including those who came from high-profile Division I programs like quarterback Star Jackson (Alabama), offensive linemen Joseph Gilbert and Clyde Yandell (Georgia Tech) and tight end Bailey Woods (Auburn) -- into the group that spent last year practicing may pass fairly quickly for his taste.

However, he is eagerly looking forward to see the talent level the newcomers will bring to the team.

More importantly, he is looking forward to how well the newcomers will raise the bar for the rest of the team as they prepare for the long-awaited season.

"We're very enthused about some of our personnel," Curry said. "Some of them are guys we recruited from a lot of different places. Some of (them) just flat out fell from the sky. We are so grateful for the transfers who came our way.

"As an overall team, we have enough personnel at all of the positions that we can do that which football teaches the best -- that is, to have competition. Last year when we were practicing and didn't have games to play, we also didn't have competition for positions. ... That's the advantage we now have. How we use our 29 practices is going to be the difference in how we perform."

Performance in this first season is very important to the Panthers.

They want to be seen as more than just a start-up program that will take their lumps coming out of the gate.

And the schedule -- which includes a mix of some very winnable games against NAIA, Division II and non-scholarship Division I-AA programs like Shorter, Lambuth and Campbell and more challenging games against I-AA foes like Jacksonville State and Morehead State, plus the much-ballyhooed season finale at defending BCS champion Alabama -- would seem to present that opportunity.

According to redshirt junior receiver Sidney Haynes, the Panthers have set their goals quite high.

"Overall, over the season, I think we want to have a winning program," the 2006 Peachtree Ridge graduate said. "I know one of the goals is to be going into Tuscaloosa (against Alabama) undefeated. That's the plan. That's what we're shooting for."

Curry says that goal may be a little overly ambitious, but the goal to be taken seriously and have a feel as being more than the average first-year program is very attainable.

"Well, first of all, I'm big-time with my granddaughters because they've seen the billboards," Curry quipped, referring to the billboards featuring his likeness throughout Georgia spreading the word of the new program. "First of all, our administration has done such a tremendous job of marketing and getting (the word) out there. Second is the reception, the way (the media) have responded to us. I know it's for real because you wouldn't do it if it weren't. ... So, that's really encouraging."