Our Sun Belt season recap series rolls on (here’s our last piece) as we now move on to Atlanta as Georgia State is coming off their best season in program history. In his first season, Shawn Elliott exceeded expectations as the Panthers finished the year with a 7-5 mark and their first bowl win in program history. The future seems bright in Atlanta after the opening of their own stadium.
Not a whole lot was expected for Elliott in his first season as the coaches pegged Georgia State for an eighth place finish while here at UDD we called for the Panthers to finish in a three-team tie for sixth place. Fresh off a 3-9 season in 2016, GSU returned 15 starters and were headlined by quarterback Conner Manning and wide receiver Penny Hart.
Many expected Hart to be one of the best players in the Sun Belt as the sophomore returned from injury after recording over 1,000 yards as a rookie in 2015. Linebackers Trey Payne and Michael Shaw were expected to pace the defense as the Panthers moved into Georgia State Stadium.
It couldn’t have started much worse for Elliott and this program as they opened their new digs on a Thursday night in Atlanta against FCS Tennessee State. The Panthers had four turnovers, only rushed for 49 yards, and opened the season with a 17-10 loss. After an offseason full of a hype, the year started off with a thud.
After a unique early bye week, the Panthers would go on the road and get thumped by a very good Penn State team. The year started off with two straight losses, but the Panthers would pick up a huge road win over Charlotte as the defense would pitch a shutout. Behind 141 receiving yards from Hart, the Panthers would collect a 28-0 victory to give them some positive momentum entering conference play.
After another bye week due to Memphis canceling because of Hurricane Irma, the Panthers would open Fun Belt play with two consecutive wins. Georgia State would go to both Coastal Carolina and ULM in consecutive weeks to pick up victories. After those wins, the Panthers would be riding a ton of momentum as they would return to Atlanta to take on Troy to play their first home game in nearly two months.
After a big week of positive talk for the program, the Panthers fell on their face on that Saturday afternoon as Troy won in a romp by a count of 34-10. The fourth quarter started with Troy owning a 31-3 lead as a stingy Georgia State defense gave up nearly 500 total yards.
The Panthers would have to bounce back quickly, however, as they hosted South Alabama on a Thursday night in a short week. After the blowout loss, Elliott’s club put together one of their best performances of the season in their first ever win at Georgia State Stadium. The Panthers held the Jags to only 41 rushing yards while Hart again paced the offense in the 21-13 victory.
After the big win, Georgia State would record their biggest win of the season as they would knock off Georgia Southern to pick up their fifth road win of the season. Manning threw for 319 yards and hit Hart with just over two minutes remaining for the game winning touchdown. With this victory, followed by a road dub over Texas State, the Panthers would enter the final two weeks of the season with home games and a chance at a conference title.
Things would get ugly quick as Appalachian State stomped the Panthers on Thanksgiving weekend as Mountaineers ran for 323 yards and rolled to a 31-10 victory. The next week the Panthers suffered a major hangover as they were upset by Idaho on senior day. A great season ended with a whimper.
However, the Panthers did qualify for postseason play as they were selected to participate in the Cure Bowl in Orlando. There they pulled off an upset victory over WKU as they held the Tops to negative-two rushing yards while Manning threw for 276 yards in the 27-17 victory.
After a season of ups and downs, the Panthers ended with a statement to finish 7-5 for their winning season since their inaugural year in FCS.
With the cancelation of the Memphis game, suddenly Georgia State was at a schedule disadvantage as they would face six total road games and four in a row starting on week three.
Envisioning them going 5-0 on the road against Group of Five competition is something I could’ve never imagined.
The Panthers used solid defense with clutch quarterback play to go 4-1 in one-possession games this fall and three of these occasions occurred on the road. The effectiveness in these close games got Georgia State into the postseason and told the story of 2017.
As good as the road performances were, the games at the new Georgia State Stadium were equally disappointing.
In their first year at their new stadium, the Panthers finished 1-4 at home with the only victory occurring against South Alabama on a Thursday night in October. Other than that, however, GSU’s performance at home were a total dud.
The Panthers never scored more than 21 points in their comfy confines and in each of their losses they scored exactly 10 points. The Panthers were crushed by both Appalachian State and Troy in games that had conference title implications. Then throw in two upset losses to Tennessee State and Idaho and you have a disappointing home slate.
With a program that is desperately trying to build up fan support, getting wins at home will be key for Elliott and his staff as they build this program.
In a huge transition year, Elliott and his staff laid the ground work as they try to build a perennial championship contender in the Sun Belt. Led by a senior quarterback and an experience defense, the Panthers were able to make history in 2017 as they recorded the first bowl win in school history.
Going into year two, GSU will have some major questions to answer as they lose a lot off this team and will be entering a division where they will have to face Appalachian State and Troy each season. However, the recruiting has been solid and we could be seeing the awakening of a sleeping giant in the Fun Belt.