I spend a lot of time in my Sun Belt previews talking about what programs could become, not what they are. Virtually every program has either a recent history of success (Appalachian State, Troy, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern) or is surrounded by a sea of FBS prospects (Texas State, Louisiana Lafayette, ULM, South Alabama, etc.). Depending on program support and coaching hires, there’s a case for just about anybody becoming a Sun Belt heavyweight.
In that “surrounded by talent” bucket, no one can match Georgia State. As I said in my very first GSU preview back in 2013, “Really, if you were building a FBS program from scratch, wouldn’t Atlanta be just about the best possible location?”
In five years at the FBS level, however, this starter has proved just how important that “program support” piece is. GSU was an unknown brand playing in a stadium about 4x too big. The primary reason most people knew of the Panthers’ existence was those shots of a virtually empty Georgia Dome.
Trent Miles briefly overcame this awkwardness. After a 3-29 start to FBS life, his Panthers won four games in a row to eke out a bowl bid in 2015, then resumed their losing ways. They lost 10 of their next 13, and Miles was off to become an offensive assistant for the Philadelphia Eagles. (That worked out pretty well for him, I must say.)
If support and hires make all the difference, though, the trajectory has taken a 180-degree spin. We haven’t learned all we need to know about Elliott just yet, but after a dreadful start to 2017 that featured a loss to Tennessee State and a 56-0 humiliation at the hands of Penn State, GSU ripped off six wins in seven games and then won its first bowl game, a 27-17 Cure Bowl triumph over former Sun Belt program WKU.
Perhaps as importantly, the Panthers found a new home, converting the abandoned Turner Field into Georgia State Stadium. Attendance not only improved by 5 percent in the first year (despite the home-opener loss to TSU), but with a capacity of 24,333, the stadium actually fit the fan base.
Now, if you’re an ATL resident, you can go to the home of Greg Maddux and Chipper Jones on a fall Saturday afternoon, catch a potentially rising football team in action, and adopt it as your second team. And if you’re an actual GSU student or alum, you have a place to call your own. You aren’t treated as a tiny minor-league affiliate of the Falcons.
Recruits seem to have noticed. Elliott’s first full-year recruiting class ranked third in the Sun Belt, per the 247Sports Composite, and averaged a three-star rating. His staff is full of hungry young assistants — 33-year old offensive coordinator Travis Trickett, 37-year old defensive coordinator Nate Fuqua, etc. — and the defense was able to almost immediately find traction. After the debacle at Penn State, GSU allowed just 22.4 points per game and finished 58th in Def. S&P+.
I would be surprised if the Panthers didn’t take a brief step backwards — they have less returning production than any Sun Belt team previewed thus far. The run game was maybe the worst in FBS last year and isn’t guaranteed to improve much, and with so many bottom-tier SBC teams likely to rise, it wouldn’t be a shock if GSU got caught in the undertow.
That said, the defense returns most of its havoc guys, and the receiving corps is exciting. The schedule features road trips to NC State, Memphis, and all three of last year’s SBC heavyweights (Arkansas State, Appalachian State, Troy), which means there will be almost no margin for error. But GSU should be competitive, and with the new home and new recruiting potential, a bright future is not only merely theoretical — it’s pretty damn likely.
GSU’s run game was nearly hopeless.
- Stuff rate is what I call run stops at or behind the line. Georgia State was 128th in avoiding those.
- Opportunity rate is your percentage of carries that gain at least five yards. GSU was 129th in that.
- In the two primary opponent-adjusted rushing categories — Adj. Line Yards and Rushing S&P+ — the Panthers were 126th and 130th, respectively.
- Leading rusher Glenn Smith never averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry in a game, and four games in, Kyler Neal was averaging 0.9.
Trickett was forced to put all of his hopes into the passing game. Conner Manning responded with a 64 percent completion rate and a marginal efficiency of plus-7 percent (meaning his success rate was 7 percentage points above expectation when accounting for down, distance, and field position), but Manning’s now gone. Smith and Neal will be missed more for their receiving prowess (combined: 58 catches, 497 yards) than their rushing.
When you have to break in a new QB, your best hope is to have a stellar run game to lean on. That won’t be the case for junior signal caller Aaron Winchester or whoever beats him out. Winchester nearly saved GSU against Tennessee State in the opener, leading a fourth-quarter scoring drive before throwing a pick in the final minute.
Winchester has mobility (not including sacks, he carried 17 times for 101 yards last year), and this could be his time after two years as Manning’s backup. He’ll have to hold off some talented newcomers, however, in mid-three-stars Jack Walker (redshirt freshman) and Swift Lyle (true freshman) and three-star JUCO Dan Ellington.
Whoever takes the job will have one of the league’s more exciting receiving corps at his disposal.
Here’s a list of 2017 receivers with a) at least 100 targets, b) a marginal efficiency of at least 12 percent, and c) a marginal explosiveness of at least 0.2 points per play:
- Oklahoma State’s James Washington
- Texas Tech’s Keke Coutee
- Southern Miss’ Korey Robertson
- Arizona State’s N’Keal Henry
- Georgia State’s Penny Hart
That’s pretty good company right there. Hart returned from injury and picked up right where he had left off as a freshman in 2015. During GSU’s 6-1 run, Hart caught 53 passes for 869 yards and eight touchdowns. Just think of what he could have done with a run game that slightly distracted defenses.
There’s minimal guarantee that the run game will improve, though it can’t get worse. The line does return four starters and seven players with starting experience, and guard Shamarious Gilmore earned honorable mention all-conference honors as a freshman. Plus, mountainous three-star redshirt freshman Connor Robbins (6’9, 310) could quickly play a role at tackle.
At running back, Taz Bateman could liven things up if he can stay healthy. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry as a freshman in 2015 but missed 2016 and the second half of 2017 with injury. Three-star sophomore Darius Stubbs also missed 2017, and if the returnees can’t stay upright, Elliott brought in three well-regarded freshmen (including mid-three-star Destin Coates, the gem of the 2018 class) to carry the load.
It’s hard to trust the running back situation with that much injury and youth, but hot damn, this receiving corps could be fun, even with lots of second-and-longs. GSU adds two SEC transfers — 6’4 South Carolina receiver Christian Owens and 6’3 Florida tight end Camrin Knight — and other tall dudes like 6’4 redshirt freshman Camryn Johnson and 6’4 true freshman Sam Pinckney (another mid-three-star guy).
Add in a couple of solid possession guys in sophomores Tamir Jones and Jonathan Ifedi and deep threat Devin Gentry (12 catches, 259 yards, three scores last year), and you’ve got an absolutely loaded corps. All it needs is a decent QB and a run game that isn’t the worst in FBS, and GSU’s scoring average could improve by a touchdown or more.
Nate Fuqua’s profile is rising quickly after an excellent tenure at Wofford and a lovely debut in Atlanta. As bad as the GSU run game was, the Panthers at least made sure opponents didn’t run much better. The Panthers ranked 41st in Rushing S&P+ and 10th in raw rushing success rate allowed, and Fuqua gets four of his top five linemen and five of seven linebackers back in 2018.
Granted, GSU does have to replace its two best run stuffers — nose guard Julien Laurent (who took part in 10 stuffs) and inside linebacker Trey Payne (nine) — but OLB Michael Shaw (eight) and end Terry Thomas (eight) were pretty good in that regard. Plus, the strength of this unit was in its balance, not its star power: all 12 primary rotation guys had between one and 6.5 TFLs.
The secondary, already the weak point of the defense, has been thinned out a bit. The Panthers ranked just 110th in Passing S&P+, allowing a 63 percent completion rate with a 23-10 TD-to-INT ratio. GSU knew opponents were going to try to pass (since they couldn’t run) but couldn’t do much about it. And now three of last year’s five primary DBs are gone.
Seniors DeAndre Applin (safety) and Jerome Smith (corner) are back, but the more challenges they take from youngsters, the better. Elliott redshirted three well-regarded recruits last year and brings in another batch this fall. You hate to go with a full-on youth movement when you’re playing in as many close games as mid-tier Sun Belt teams usually face, and you especially hate to do so with your secondary in a pass-happy league. But an infusion of youth in the back might not be the worst thing in the world here.
GSU overcame not only an awful run game to make a bowl — the Panthers overcame awful special teams. The Panthers ranked better than 87th in just one ST efficiency category (kickoffs) and in the bottom five in overall Special Teams S&P+.
Maybe youth can be blamed for that. Place-kicker/punter Brandon Wright and punter Oliver Holdenson were both sophomores, and Wright clearly has a cannon for a leg. He averaged 44.4 yards per punt and was trusted to attempt 12 field goals longer than 40 yards. Unfortunately, he frequently outkicked his coverage, and he made just five of those 12 long kicks. But the potential’s there.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|8-Sep||at N.C. State||37||-20.8||11%|
|TBD||at Arkansas State||66||-15.0||19%|
|TBD||at Appalachian State||63||-15.5||19%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||113|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||117 / 95|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-12.5 (120)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||94 / 105|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-4 / -1.9|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||-0.9|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||58% (62%, 54%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||5.7 (1.3)|
The schedule is going to be a major issue. The Panthers have an under 25 percent chance of winning in five road games, meaning they’ll either have to pull a big upset or basically win out in their seven tossup games to reach bowl eligibility. It’s not inconceivable, especially with this front seven and receiving corps.
Maybe tamping expectations down isn’t the worst thing. The Panthers will have a few seniors to replace after 2018, but a majority of their stars will be juniors or younger, and after a reset this fall, they could be ready for impressive things in 2019 and beyond.
Elliott earned a mulligan in year one, and he might use it this fall.