Georgia State capitalized on the conference upheaval of 2011-2012 to accelerate their move to Division 1 football. A young team that had not yet established a competitive 1-AA program found themselves thrown into the FBS ranks, and 2013's winless campaign was the predicable result.
However, the Panthers have added one more year of Sun Belt recruiting to bolster the roster, and another year of growth under the new coaching staff. That should lead to a move up in the Sun Belt pecking order, led by several key contributors.
Nick Arbuckle, Quarterback
Ronnie Bell fought gamely to lead the Panther attack in 2013, but the 5'11", 180 pound JR is one of many upperclassmen who was recruited for and is best suited for the Colonial. The coaching staff needed better production than Bell's 50% completion rate and 15:11 TD to interception ratio, and they hit the junior college circuit to find it.
Enter three-star recruit Nick Arbuckle of Pierce College (CA). The 6'1", 220 junior showed a knack for big plays while passing for over 6,500 yards and 73 TDs in two seasons at Pierce, and he selected the Panthers over Mountain West programs like Utah State and UNLV. Arbuckle seized the starting position in spring practice, and coaches have raved over his decision making and film work. As long as he remains healthy, Arbuckle should remain the trigger-man for a Panthers attack seeking a more consistency for OC Jeff Jagodzinski's passing attack.
Joseph Peterson, Linebacker
Peterson was a 2013 Honorable Mention All Sun Belt selection, and he was tabbed Preseason All Conference (2nd team) by Sun Belt coaches this year. The 6'0", 220 pound JR was overlooked by nearby Troy out of Dothan (AL) High School, but he has been a leader since arriving on campus. Peterson was named a team captain in only his second college game, and he led the Panthers in tackles as a true freshman before setting a program record with 103 tackles last year. The coaches are seeking ways to increase pressure off the edge in 2014. In order to take any risks, Peterson must continue to anchor the middle of the 3-4 as an undersized but reliable tackling machine.
Marcus Caffey, Cornerback
The 2011 Grady product signed as a running back with Kentucky out of high school and immediately redshirted to learn the corner position. Caffey was named a starter heading into 2012, but he never saw the field in Lexington. A season-long academic suspension was followed by a dismissal when new coach Mark Stoops took over. Caffey landed at Iowa Western Community College. After excelling for one of the top two-year programs in the nation, Caffey declined an offer from West Virginia to return home to Atlanta.
Caffey was a starter the moment he stepped on campus. He is a talented player once expected to be a four year starter in the SEC, and he turned down an opportunity in the Big 12 to join GSU. A secondary that loses its top five tacklers from 2013 needs Caffey to be a lockdown corner from Week 1, and he has the ability to handle the role. Phil Steele has already named the 6'0", 190 RS JR 3rd team preseason All Conference. If Caffey fulfills his promise, he could improve on that by the end of the year.
Trent Miles, Head Coach
Trent Miles already has one impressive program build on his resume. He took over Indiana State when the program was on a 1-38 streak. The Sycamores struggled through his first two seasons, as Miles dismissed over 40 players in a complete house cleaning. In 2010, the changes paid off when Indiana State turned in the first of three straight winning seasons, the program's first such streak since the 1960's, and later appeared in the national rankings for the first time in decades.
Miles jumped at the opportunity to duplicate his achievement at the Division 1 level. Georgia State administration deserves praise for grabbing a hot name in coaching circles, and the AD understands that Miles will need time to remake the program. The coaching staff is frantically upgrading talent, replacing upperclassmen recruited to 1-AA with Division 1 caliber freshmen and junior college transfers. That talent infusion is evident in the many first and second year players filling the two deep, including two of the three players highlighted here.
Georgia State has many more SBC caliber players than last season, and they have a coach who should maximize their ability. Expect the Panthers to claim their first victory over a member of the sport's highest division. Though 3-9 or better would be a rousing success in 2014, the program is on track to make a big move in the years ahead.
Thursday: A look at the Georgia State program's strong fundamentals.