This preview was originally published February 10 and has since been updated.
Trent Miles had one perfect month.
Georgia State joined the FBS ranks in 2013, only three years into its football existence. The Panthers had won just 10 games from 2010-12, a ride rough enough that inaugural head coach Bill Curry hopped off before FBS arrival.
Miles hopped on in 2013 ... and won 10 games in four years.
Four of Miles’ 10 wins, however, happened in one fell swoop late in 2015. At 2-6, staring a possible firing in the face, Miles led GSU to wins over Texas State, South Alabama, Troy, and Georgia Southern, pulling off one of the most unexpected bowl bids in the history of bowl bids.
The coup de grace was a 34-7 romp over rival Georgia Southern, a program with an actual history that didn't feel the need to move up to FBS until State was attempting it. Southern had beaten State by 38 points the year before; the Panthers’ win took on the feel of those 1980s movies where the nerd gets the best of the bully and can’t stop punching and crying. There was catharsis.
Miles was 3-29 before that four-game streak. Including the Cure Bowl loss to San Jose State that followed, he went 2-9 after it. He was ousted after a 2-8 start in 2016. (Interim coach Tim Lappano engineered another win over Southern, by the way.)
That win streak earned Miles another year of head coach salary. It also served as a glimpse into just how difficult it is to build a functional football machine. Everybody’s got talent, both on the field and in the coaches’ offices. Everybody’s got a decent idea of how they want to win. But finding an edge is tough, and keeping it is even tougher.
So now it’s Shawn Elliott’s turn. The former South Carolina offensive line coach knows about transition — he served as the Gamecocks’ interim head coach when Steve Spurrier retired midway through 2015, then he went back to his job on the offensive line when Will Muschamp took over. That technically means he has SEC head coaching experience. It also means he’s familiar with recruiting in and around Atlanta.
Georgia State will take a new coach into its new home stadium, a reworking of the Atlanta Braves’ Turner Field. It will hold about 22,000 fans — GSU’s average attendance of about 15,000 will look much more aesthetically pleasing there than in the cavernous Dome — and could eventually expand to 33,000. The initial stages of Georgia State’s FBS life are over. For better or worse, stage two has now begun.
It will be begin with what could be a pretty decent team.
The Panthers return quarterback Conner Manning, most of their skill position guys (plus, they get 2015 star receiver Penny Hart back from injury), most of their linemen, and most of their secondary. They had a legitimately solid defense last year, and if Elliott has made the right hires, the offense could expect to rebound a bit.
2016 in review
You can kind of see where things began to go awry:
The season began in disappointing fashion, with losses to Ball State and Air Force by a combined 79-35. But beginning with a Week 3 trip to Madison, the Panthers looked like they had some potential.
They took an out-of-nowhere 17-13 lead on Wisconsin early in the fourth quarter before faltering. They were within a touchdown of Appalachian State in Boone with four minutes left. They pummeled Texas State and UT-Martin. They were within three points of a smoking-hot Troy before faltering on the road.
GSU was just good enough to stay close to some strong teams, but the Panthers couldn't win the last five to 10 minutes. And when quarterback Conner Manning — 20-for-29 for 269 yards against an excellent Wisconsin defense — suffered an injury in practice before the UTM game, fortunes changed.
- First 2 games (0-2): Avg. percentile performance: 14% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-17.4 PPG
- Next 5 games (2-3): Avg. percentile performance: 41% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-11.5 PPG
- Last 5 games (1-4): Avg. percentile performance: 33% | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-10.3 PPG
Manning missed a 13-10 loss to South Alabama and went just 22-for-46 in a 31-16 loss to Arkansas State. He was excellent against ULM, but defense and special teams fell in a 37-23 defeat (Miles' last game). He was strong in the win over Georgia Southern but threw four picks in a pummeling at Idaho.
GSU underachieved, then overachieved, then underachieved again. But with a healthy Manning leading an experienced two-deep, one could see another turn of fortune in 2017.
Let's start with a list of assets. Here’s what new offensive coordinator Travis Trickett inherits:
The Utah transfer took control last year, and his best moments were quite good. Against Wisconsin, Texas State, ULM, and Georgia Southern, he completed 63 percent of his passes at 15.5 yards per completion, with eight touchdowns, no picks, and a passer rating of 164.3. Over a full season, that's basically Washington's Jake Browning.
But in his other six games, but the per-completion average fell to 11.1 yards with eight touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and a passer rating of 99. His supporting cast didn’t always offer support, and he suffered what were perhaps some predictable inconsistency in his first year as a starter.
Manning isn’t much of a runner, but Trickett’s FAU offense last year didn’t ask the QB to run. This might be a decent match.
Receiver Penny Hart
Hart exploded as a freshman in 2015. In Georgia State's six wins, he caught 40 passes for 570 yards and six touchdowns, and he had at least 97 receiving yards in three of State's losses, too.
Hart's 2016 consisted of five catches against Ball State, three against Appalachian State ... and that's it. He missed two games with a hamstring injury, then returned just in time to break his foot. The Panthers needed one or two more plays to beat Wisconsin and South Alabama and not too many more to beat Troy. Hart could have provided some of those.
Running backs Taz Bateman and Kyler Neal
When healthy, the junior has shown loads of potential. He rushed 14 times for 99 yards in the first two games of 2015, then broke his arm. He had lovely games against Texas State and Troy late in 2015 and was a spring star in 2016, then tore his ACL.
Meanwhile, Neal struggled early but looked like he might be putting something together. After averaging 2.9 yards per carry through four games, he had 13 carries for 89 yards against Texas State. He then proceeded to get hurt against Troy and miss most of five games. Injuries have not been Georgia State's friend of late.
GSU ranked 127th in Rushing S&P+ last year and 121st in Standard Downs S&P+. The Panthers were rendered one-dimensional, and it made Manning's life pretty difficult at times. If Bateman or Neal can help to give a sustained pop to the ground attack, the Manning-to-Hart combination could find life.
Untapped receiver potential
Leading receiver Robert Davis is gone, as is tight end Keith Rucker. They combined for 99 catches. But those are the only departures, and the returning cast seems to have potential. Senior Todd Boyd could develop into a decent slot type, junior tight end Ari Werts averaged 11.8 yards per target, and all-or-nothing sophomore Jawan Nobles (33 percent catch rate, 19.9 yards per catch) could become more consistent with experience.
Meanwhile, three redshirt freshmen and two true freshmen (including lanky three-star Camryn Johnson) are vying for a spot or two in the rotation. If the run game brings anything (not a given), the passing game could thrive.
Experience and potential on the line
Four of last year's starters are back from a rather unsuccessful line. At the very least, the veterans will be tested by high-ceiling youngsters. Elliott signed four three-star freshmen up front, including 6'9, 340-pound specimen Connor Robbins. This line might not be good just yet, but its ceiling might be higher at least. [Update: GSU’s also adding 6’5 Pete Leota from South Carolina, though it’s uncertain whether he’ll be eligible this year.]
Trickett, son of Florida State line coach Rick Trickett, attempted balance at FAU last year; his Owl offense was middle-of-the-road in terms of run rates, tempo, and spreadness (it's a word; look it up). Meanwhile, his 2015 Samford offense leaned a little pass-heavy. Depending on Bateman and Neal, Trickett might find life more tenable leaning on the pass.
GSU's 2016 collapse was unfortunate in that it distracted us from impressive defensive improvement. The Panthers improved from 78th to 52nd in Def. S&P+ and boasted a top-20 pass defense per Passing S&P+. The run defense bent too much, but they were excellent at preventing big plays and waiting for the opponent to wilt.
The Panthers were middle-of-the-pack in the Sun Belt in efficiency, but they were by far the best in the league at preventing big plays. You might say they had the league’s premier bend-don’t-break defense. And if the offense would have cooperated, this defense could have won some games.
Former Wofford defensive coordinator Nate Fuqua inherits a seasoned group, though a personality change could be interesting. Wofford's 2016 defense swarmed to the ball.
The Terriers' 19 percent havoc rate would have ranked 15th at the FBS level, and their 42.4 percent ratio of passes defensed to incomplete passes — a way of measuring activity in the secondary — would have tied them for first with San Diego State. Even filtering out sacks, they allowed just 3.7 yards per carry, and once opponents were forced to pass, they pounced.
That doesn’t sound very bend-don’t-break to me.
Fuqua's first GSU defense will have quite a bit of experience, at least: Four of the top six linemen return, as do three of four linebackers and six of seven in the secondary. Linebacker Alonzo McGee, end Shawanye Lawrence, and safety Bobby Baker are gone, but that's about it.
Fuqua will have some playmakers. Linebacker Michael Shaw had 12 tackles for loss in 2016, end Mackendy Cheridor had six, and three returning defensive backs defensed at least six passes. But he'll probably be on the lookout for a few more disruptors.
Thanks to the injury issues on offense, GSU's special teams unit probably wasn't its biggest overall enemy. But it was close. The Panthers were decent in kickoff coverage, and they had a couple of good kick returns, but that was about it. Return efficiency was nonexistent (102nd in kick return efficiency, 122nd in punt return efficiency), punting was a disaster — freshman Brandon Wright averaged under 40 yards per kick, and opponents still averaged 12.4 yards per return — and Rogier ten Lohuis' place-kicking range seemed to cut off around 39 yards.
GSU ranked 127th in Special Teams S&P+. The Panthers weren't good enough to give up an extra couple of points per game through special teams, but they did. Everybody's back, but we'll see if that's a good thing.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|16-Sep||at Penn State||8||-37.3||2%|
|TBA||at Coastal Carolina||114||-3.4||42%|
|TBA||at Georgia Southern||98||-6.9||34%|
|TBA||at Texas State||129||6.4||64%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||113|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||123 / 72|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-9.9 (108)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||113 / 121|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-5 / -0.2|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||-2.0|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||64% (65%, 62%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||4.4 (-1.4)|
It doesn't take much to make yourself a bowl-caliber team in the Sun Belt. Georgia State is projected a conservative 113th in S&P+ but still projects to win about five games. The Panthers have between a 34 and 64 percent chance of winning in seven games. If they can work their way to about 100th or 105th, they'll probably be in the postseason.
Such is life when five conference opponents are projected 108th or worse.
In the short-term, eking out a bowl bid in your new coach's first season would be encouraging. But the long-term remains fascinating. The school has plans to use the Turner Field acquisition for both sports and campus use and might have just figured out a way to create something of an on-campus atmosphere at games. It will be more intimate, at least.
A fun atmosphere and positive results in the middle of a football hotbed: That sounds like a recipe for mid-major success, yes? GSU seems to have the potential to become a fun local team to root for within the transient Atlanta population. And while Elliott wasn't a headline-grabbing hire, that won't really matter if he wins some games.