ATLANTA -- By just about every standard, 2012 will be a transition season in the young history of Georgia State's football program.
Originally intended to be a transition year from a fledgling program to competing in one of FCS football's toughest conferences -- the Colonial Athletic Association -- an even bigger move to FBS status and the Sun Belt Conference next year is now the ultimate destination.
Thus, the Panthers face a crossroads season of sorts as head coach Bill Curry and several players faced questions during Tuesday's media day in preparation for the opening of preseason practice today.
"We have the most demanding schedule in our history," Curry said. "FBS is around the corner, which was a surprise to me because I thought down the road that would be in the cards for us, but I thought it would be maybe five or six years away, once we became established as an FCS power. We haven't established anything like what we want to establish on the field. Hopefully we take the next step while playing in the very tough CAA this year and then on to the Sun Belt next year."
Indeed, GSU's schedule definitely gets an upgrade from the first two seasons, with a game against a BCS conference team (Tennessee), plus games against four FCS playoff teams from last year among their CAA slate.
And there are plenty of questions to be answered to determine whether the Panthers are ready for such an upgrade after last year's 3-8 campaign that proved to be a disappointing setback following a 6-5 inaugural season in 2010.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether there will be stability at the quarterback position this year following a season in which there was anything but.
And for the answer, the Panthers will turn -- for the moment -- to a redshirt freshman in Ben McLane, who moved ahead of incumbent Kelton Hill for the starting job during spring practice and will battle Hill, Ohio transfer Ronnie Bell and three incoming true freshmen to keep the job for the Aug. 30 season opener against South Carolina State in the Georgia Dome.
"We'll see," Curry said when asked whether he felt McLane, who quarterbacked Brookwood to the 2010 Class AAAAA state championship, was ready for such responsibility. "Because Ben won a state championship in the Georgia Dome at the highest level of high school football in Georgia and because he came out in the spring and threw the ball well, we think he has a chance.
"But now he has to come to training camp, get into two-a-days, get tired, go through some rough stuff and show us that he can do that and win the job again. Then he has to go into the game and do it again. We believe he can do it, but he has to show it. ... It will be a good battle between Ben and Kelton."
For his part, McLane is eager to accept the challenge of holding onto the starting job and is ready to show that he can be the leader Curry wants him to be.
"The mindset really is different," the 6-foot-1, 210-pound redshirt freshman said. "Entering spring, ... there really were no expectations. But I've got to come in (to preseason practice) with the same mindset. I've just got to keep growing, being competitive and reaffirm what I did in the spring."
He'll have plenty of weapons to help him try to bring continuity to the Panthers, such as running back Donald Russell, receivers Albert Wilson, Danny Williams and Jordan Giles and tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi, who says the Panthers, like McLane, have something to prove this season.
"We're more unified than we've ever been," the 6-3, 235-pound Mill Creek grad said. "We definitely have to earn respect, and we're definitely trying to do that. We feel obligated to take each one of our 11 games one at a time."
If there is one area that GSU must see improvement in order to be competitive this season it is along the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.
While technically only one starter returns along the offensive and defensive lines -- redshirt junior offensive tackle Grant King -- several other returners saw action last season, including redshirt junior offensive guard Harrison Clottey, a Grayson grad, and redshirt sophomore defensive end John Kelly, a Norcross grad.
But they will be pushed by a talented group of incoming freshmen that includes Grayson grad Grant Gorringe and Duluth grad Mark Ruskell.
As GSU offensive coordinator John Bond put it, "This is as athletic a group as I've ever been around. I'm willing to live with a little inexperience to get athleticism."
But athleticism aside, Curry wants to see another quality from all the Panthers this fall -- toughness, especially late in games after losing four games by a combined 23 points last year.
"Our theme for the season is to, 'Man up and finish,'" Curry said. "Football is the ultimate team game, but it comes down to if I'm going to knock you off the ball in the fourth quarter. We will work on that (beginning today).
"The fourth quarter is where you make your living in our business, and you either get embarrassed or excel. Our first year, we did reasonably well, and last year, we did not. ... Nobody can say that we didn't teach (the players) about finishing. We are going to finish every play this season, or you don't play."