Right before the 2012 season, Penn State hired quarterback guru Bill O’Brien to be the next head football coach after the tumultuous offseason that saw the firing and subsequent death of Joe Paterno, the accusations of sexual assault of Jerry Sandusky and a football program that was crumbling around the university. But even with the F-5-like tornado surrounding the school and a program facing reduced scholarships and players given the chance to leave without having to sit out a season, the school still had an FBS football team. It may have been dismantled, a thought we now know simply didn’t happen, but it was still intact. at the FBS level
The same couldn’t be said for Georgia State. The Panthers were going into their first season in the Colonial Athletic Association after spending the first three seasons as an FCS Independent school. Three years prior to that, the school didn’t have a football program at all.
The 2012 season progressed, and Penn State rattled off an improbable eight wins behind a stronghold of seniors and veteran leaders that decided their university was more important to them than just playing football. The same couldn’t be said for the Georgia State football program, which won just one game in 11 tries in the CAA.
With that being said, it seemed highly unlikely that the Panthers would make the jump to the FBS level at any time in the near future, let alone to begin the 2013 season. But that’s precisely the decision that was made, promoting Georgia State to the Sun Belt Conference, the same Conference that in-state rival Georgia Southern would break through a few years later, demolishing Sun Belt competition in its first two seasons.
The same success didn’t come for the Panthers of Georgia State, however, as the team failed to win a single game in its inaugural season at the FBS level. Little success was seen in year two under Head Coach Trent Miles, as the Panthers won just one game in 2014., leaving Mills with a two year record of 1-23.
Finally, in 2015, the Panthers gained a foothole in college football, and saw their win total increase to six victories. That year, the Panthers also found themselves in their first FBS bowl game, taking on San Jose State in the Cure Bowl. While the team fell short against the Spartans, the year as a whole was viewed as a massive step in the right direction.
But that progress was not sustained, as the Panthers slipped, once again, in 2016, falling to 3-9. The team struggled to replace senior quarterback Nick Arbuckle, who threw 4368 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2015. They also couldn’t find the production from a receiving core that lost Arbuckle’s favorite target Penny Hart, who caught 72 passes for over 1100 yards, hauling in eight touchdowns. Hart was injured for the entire 2016 season. For his efforts, Hart won 2015 Sun Belt freshman of the year, and was honored as a first-team all conference receiver.
With the lose of Hart, the offense was not as effective, dropped its first five games in 2016. After 10 games, Head Coach Trent Miles was fired and replaced by Tim Lappano on an interim basis for the remaining two games.
Lappano was not renewed as the head coach going into 2017, as Georgia State announced on December 8, 2016 that Shawn Elliot would become the leader of the Panthers for the 2017 season. Elliot worked the last seven season as South Carolina’s co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Before that, he was an assistant at Appalachian State for 13 seasons.
This will be just the second game of the season for the Panthers, who had an early season bye in week two after their game against Memphis was canceled because of hurricane implications. That game will be made up in two weeks on September 30. Two weeks prior, Georgia State dropped a game to FBS foe Tennessee State 17-10.
Unlike their state counterpart Georgia Southern, who run the football nearly two-thirds of the plays they run from scrimmage, Georgia State uses a fairly balanced offensive system. The Panthers return senior starting quarterback Conner Manning under center for 2017. While he didn’t have the success in 2016 that Arbuckle had in 2015, Manning still was productive. He threw for 2684 yards and 16 touchdowns. He did throw 13 interceptions on the campaign, the second most in the conference, likely hurting the offenses chances to score on multiple occasions, but he’s back a year older and a year more mature in 2017. Manning completed 14 of 17 passes two weeks ago, throwing for 159 yards, but no scores.
Georgia State didn’t use one sole quarterback in the opening contest of 2016, as Aaron Winchester threw six passes, completing four of them, for 65 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Winchester replaced Manning in the second half after Manning took a shot, hitting his head. The team did not diagnose Manning with a concussion, but his day was done after the hit. Manning is listed as probable, but with two weeks to recover from the hit, I’d expect him to get the start for the Panthers this weekend, especially with the late 7:30 start, giving the quarterback an extra few hours to prepare.
2016 feature back Kyler Neal returns to the fold as well, but he wasn’t used often in the opener against Tennessee State. He garnered just five carries for two total yards in week one. He amassed 314 yards on 74 carries, including two touchdowns, in 2016 for an offense that spreads the ball equally. The Panthers had eight different players run the ball at least 20 times in 2016. The leading rusher for the Panthers in week one was Taz Bateman, who go the bulk of the carries with 12 touches. He only came away with 27 yards, but it was 27 of 49 total rushing yards two weeks ago. Bateman didn’t play last season after suffering a torn ACL in spring practices in 2016. It will be interesting to see which back will see the majority of the touches this week, especially since the Nittany Lion run defense will be leagues better than that of Tennessee State.
For the second straight year, the Panthers and their quarterback will have to find a new go-to guy on the outside. 2016 leading receiver Robert Davis is no longer on the roster. After 222 career receptions in his Georgia State career, including 67 for 968 yards and five touchdowns in 2016, Davis was drafted in the sixth round by the Washington Redskins. Luckily, the team can find solace in Penny Hart’s return to the field. Hart hauled in five balls for 36 yards in week one and looks to break out as the season progresses.
As an offensive unit, the Panthers finished with more yards than just seven collegiate teams, good for 120th in the nation, with 4007 total yards. Two Big Tens schools (Rutgers, last, and Illinois, 125th) finished below Georgia State. The team finished middle of the road in terms of passing yards, coming in at 64 in the country, the best of schools in the state of Georgia, and better than Ohio State and Michigan. It was the rushing attack that caused problems, though, as the team finished 126th in the country, ahead of just Texas State and UCLA. The Panthers, as a whole, rushed for just 1052 yards in 2016. 58 individual running backs across the country ran for more yards than the Panthers did.
Defensively, things remained afloat for Georgia State, as they ranked 44th in total yards allowed with 4568, eight yards less than Penn State allowed. They were pressed into tight spots on occasion due to Manning’s untimely interceptions, but never seemed to break. The defense allowed 319 points throughout the season, good for 26.6 points per game, or 52nd nationally, better than Oklahoma last season.
The secondary was especially tough on opposing offenses last season, allowing just 2087 passing yards all year, ninth best in the country. The 2017 secondary will be headlined by returning starters Chandon Sullivan and Jerome Smith, who each had three interceptions last season, as well as the newest addition DeAndre Applin, who has moved into the starting role after playing at Georgia Military College. They will be extremely stingy against the pass. Penn State would do well to use it’s size advantage over these defensive backs, who all check in at 5’11” or smaller. Juwan Johnson and Mike Gesicki could be in for big days again.
While I do anticipate Georgia State’s defense to come out and impress any Penn State fan who doesn’t know what kind of football team they’re about to watch, the Nittany Lions outclass the Panthers in every facet of the game. The offense is better than the Georgia State defense. The defense is worlds better than the Panther offense. Special teams will only be an added bonus for James Franklin. It’s been a struggle for Georgia State to find success since joining the FBS ranks, and scheduling a game against a team classes ahead of you in talent, no matter how much money your program is receiving, will be tough to swallow when the team finds itself on a very sullen, quiet bus ride home.
Final Prediction: Penn State 45 Georgia State 7
Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports