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2021 TaxAct Camellia Bowl Preview: Georgia State Panthers vs. Ball State Cardinals

Panthers want history, Cardinals want to finish with a winning record

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NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Marshall vs Buffalo Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Start time: 2:30 p.m. EST, Dec. 25
Location: Cramton Bowl - Montgomery, AL
Records: GSU 7-5 (6-2, 2nd in SBC East), BSU 6-6 (4-4, 4th in MAC West)
Spread: GSU -4.5; O/U 50.0 per DraftKings*

*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.

On Christmas Day, Georgia State will face Ball State in the eighth annual TaxAct Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, AL. A postseason victory would make 2021 the winningest season in Georgia State history, while Ball State is playing to decide which side of .500 its season ends.

Who is Georgia State?

As cliché as it sounds, the Georgia State Panthers’ season can only be described as one with two distinct halves. GSU started the year 1-4 and was outscored by opponents by more than four touchdowns on average in those four losses.

Following that… less than ideal… opening half, the Panthers won six of their seven remaining games with the only loss coming against then-24th-ranked Louisiana. The Panthers finished second in the Sun Belt East Division, third overall in the conference, tied the program record for most wins in a season.

GSU plays an offensive style that relies heavily on RBs Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams. The Panthers ran the ball nearly twice as often as they passed. QB Darren Grainger is not relying on check downs for the passing part of the offense, however, as he averaged over 12 yards per completion this past season.

NCAA Football: Georgia St. at Coastal Carolina
GSU QB Darren Grainger and RB Tucker Gregg
David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, the Panthers can be consistently found in opposing backfields. GSU recorded 34 sacks and 84 TFLs, led in both statistics by senior LB Blake Carroll (5.5 and 10.0 respectively).

Safety Antavious Lane, who recently became the sole record holder for career interceptions at GSU, headlines a secondary that forced ten interceptions all season. Lane, who accounted for four picks, was named to the All-Sun Belt First Team, the first defensive Panther to receive the honor since 2016.

Who is Ball State?

As previously mentioned, the Camellia Bowl determines which side of .500 Ball State finishes its 2021 season. The Cardinals only became bowl eligible after their final game of the season, a 20-3 win over Buffalo.

This season of average-at-best play in the MAC is a step down from the 7-1 (5-1 in conference) 2020 season and does not forecast incredibly well for head coach circa 2016 Mike Neu. Neu received a contract extension through 2025 this past summer.

NCAA Football: Army at Ball State
BSU QB Drew Plitt
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback Drew Plitt provided consistency under center for Ball State— he finished tied for the third-lowest total in the MAC for interceptions— and found success with his two favorite receivers: Jayshon Jackson and Justin Hall. Jackson gained 70 more yards on four less catches than Hall, but the latter was the only offensive skill position player from Ball State named to a 2021 All-MAC team thanks to his usage in the rushing game.

Bryce Cosby, one of three Ball State All-MAC First Team nominees (the others being punter Nathan Snyder and Hall, as a kick returner), is part of a scary Cardinals secondary. The group’s 15 picks were second-highest in interceptions in the MAC; Kent State recorded one more but played an extra game.

How does GSU win?

Teams that have beaten Ball State have done so by putting the ball on the ground so as to circumvent the Cardinals’ impressive pass defense. In Ball State’s six losses, opponents have rushed an average of 42.8 times for 218.5 yards; GSU averaged 45.3 rushes for 223.8 yards in all games this season. If the Panthers can retain the ground superiority they’ve maintained this year, especially in the back half of the season, they should not be troubled by the Ball State defense.

To stop the Ball State offense, Georgia State needs to keep receiver Justin Hall out of the end zone. Hall led the Cardinals in scoring, was their only player to score double-digit touchdowns and, perhaps most impressively, scored two touchdowns in all but one of Ball State’s wins. The only exception was against Army, where he scored once on a 99-yard kickoff return.

How does BSU win?

While easier said than done, Ball State must slow down the imposing GSU rushing game. In wins, the Panthers rushed for over 263 yards per game, but in losses that average drops to 168. This is not just due to volume differences, as Georgia State’s yards per carry average is roughly a yard and a half greater in victories than in defeats.

On the offensive side, Ball State needs stick to the passing-centric offense that has worked previously (in three of their six wins this season the Cardinals ran for under 60 yards) but do so without turning the ball over. It is football scripture that the team that wins the turnover battle will typically win the football game, and with a group that steals possessions and doesn’t cough it up easily like Georgia State, Ball State will need to ensure that it takes care of the football.

The long and short of it

At a quick glance, the numbers say the 2021 Camellia Bowl should be a fairly balanced defensive battle. However, Georgia State plays a brand of football that matches the precedent set for how to beat Ball State this season. Assuming all starters play, GSU should win its third bowl game in program history on Christmas Day.