Location: Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL
Date: Saturday, December 16th
Time: 2:30 PM ET
TV/Stream: CBS Sports Network
Records: Western Kentucky (6-6), Georgia State (6-5)
Spread: Western Kentucky -6.5
All-Time Series: WKU won the only other meeting between these two teams during the 2013 regular season 44-28.
Western Kentucky Outlook
The Hilltoppers are looking to end with a victory in what has been a up-and-down year. Mike Sanford’s first season as the head coach failed to bring the Tops a third consecutive conference championship, but they were able to secure a bowl berth for the fourth straight year. Had it not been for a triple-overtime win against Middle Tennessee back on November 17th, the Tops would be at home this bowl season as that was their lone win in the final five games of the season.
Once again, the performance of Mike White was the highlight of WKU’s season. The senior quarterback threw for 3,826 yards this year, which was the fourth highest total in the NCAA. He was somehow able to do that behind that an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 42 times, which was the fifth highest total in the NCAA. Western’s rushing attack was almost nonexistent throughout the season due to a combination of injuries in the backfield and a lack of a push by the guys up front. The Tops ran for just 66 yards per game in 2017. Plain and simple: a Western Kentucky win hinges on White being able to spread the ball around and do what he does best.
Defensively, the switch to a 4-2-5 alignment this year has seemingly been both a positive and a negative for WKU. They allowed fewer overall points this year as well as fewer passing yards. But they were significantly worse in defending the run, allowing 710 more rushing yards and nine more rushing TDs in 2017 than in 2016. Linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe led that group this year with 105 tackles and three forced fumbles on his way to a first team All-Conference USA selection. That passing defense will need to turn in a strong day in order to defend against Georgia State quarterback/receiver duo of Conner Manning and Penny Hart.
As a whole, if Western Kentucky plays relatively mistake-free football, they should be in good shape. But we’ll probably see a whole lot of points scored along the way.
Georgia State Outlook
No matter how you slice it, Georgia State making it to the postseason this year is one heck of an accomplishment. After losing to FCS Tennessee State in the opener, Shawn Elliott did a great job in his first season as a head coach.
This offense certainly has its limitations under offensive coordinator Travis Trickett as they are averaging less than 20 points per game. Running the ball is a tall task for this group as S&P+ has them as the worst rushing offense in the FBS. This attack is centered around wide receiver Penny Hart and the Panthers need him to be great in every outing. The sophomore had 73 grabs this season on 113 targets with 1,094 yards and eight touchdowns.
This offense has gotten solid play from senior quarterback Conner Manning as he’s completing nearly 64% of his passes, is averaging 7.7 yards per attempt, and has 13 touchdowns with seven interceptions. When the Panthers do go to the ground, converted wide receiver Glenn Smith is the guy as he’s averaging 3.5 yards per carry and leads the team with 521 rushing yards.
On the defensive side, coordinator Nate Fuqua has done a solid job building a respectable defense in his first season as S&P+ ranks this as the 60th best unit in the FBS. For the season, the Panthers are allowing 25.5 points per game and 5.8 yards per play.
What this group has done best is get off the field on third downs as opponents are only converting first downs at a 38.3% clip. As far as individual performances go, senior safety Bryan Williams has recorded 57 tackles with four interceptions while senior nose guard Julien Laurent is a run stopping force with 6.5 non-sack tackles for loss.
Special teams have been a roller coaster for this team all year and it starts with the field goal department. Brandon Wright has attempted 20 field goals and has only hit 10. Add in two missed extra points and no real threat in the return department and that gives you one of the worst special team units in the country.
Joe: I’m riding with Western Kentucky in a 27-17 win.
Adam: On Saturday afternoon, whichever teams wants to be there more is going to come away with a victory. These may be the two worst rushing offenses in the country so it’s going to come down to which offense can throw it the best. I give WKU edge with Mike White, but if GSU can get out to lead early they could possibly bury a Tops team that has had a disappointing fall. WKU 34, Georgia State 28.