Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
What happens when a reset year is a reset year? Does the depth of the stumble matter if you knew a stumble was coming?
In last year’s Georgia State preview, I noted that, despite the Panthers’ unexpected 2017 success in Shawn Elliott’s first season — they ripped off a 7-3 finish and nabbed their first ever bowl win — signs pointed to a tricky 2018.
I would be surprised if the Panthers didn’t take a brief step backward — they have less returning production than any Sun Belt team previewed thus far. With so many bottom-tier SBC teams likely to rise, it wouldn’t be a shock if GSU got caught in the undertow.
Maybe tamping expectations down isn’t the worst thing. The Panthers will have a few seniors to replace after 2018, but a majority of their stars will be juniors or younger, and after a reset this fall, they could be ready for impressive things in 2019 and beyond.
S&P+ projected the Panthers to win about four to five games. Instead, they won two and sank to 125th, their worst ranking since 2014. And that was with an overachieving offense. GSU was projected 117th in Off. S&P+, but after a brutal first month, it averaged 27.4 points per game and finished 108th.
Instead, it was the defense where everything went awry. GSU was 75th in Def. S&P+ in 2017 and returned a number of playmakers. But while the Panthers rendered opposing run games inefficient at times, the secondary got nuked. The three key returnees missed a combined 13 games, five true and redshirt freshmen got significant playing time, and GSU ended up 126th in Passing S&P+ and 127th overall on defense.
The result: devastation. With its secondary mostly intact, GSU eked by Kennesaw State in the season opener (a perfectly decent result, to be honest), and strangely blew out ULM in late-September, a result that kept the WarHawks from bowling. Otherwise, they stayed within single digits of opponents in just two other games.
This was obviously worse than expected, but does it matter? I don’t mean that in an existential way, I mean, for purposes of projecting the future, does it matter that GSU was 125th instead of 115th?
The Panthers ended up finding more offensive answers than expected and now return more of last year’s defensive production than I would have anticipated a year ago. And after signing the No. 3 class in the Sun Belt in 2018, Elliott landed the fifth in 2019 despite the awful season.
Of the 19 defenders with at least 10 tackles in 2018, 15 return, as do last year’s starting quarterback, top three rushers, all but one receiver, and five offensive linemen with starting experience. The Panthers might start as few as seven seniors this year, and there are three-star freshmen and sophomores in every unit.
Granted, the schedule might prevent any major bounce back this fall. GSU has to play at Tennessee and Western Michigan in non-conference play, and four of six home games (Army in non-con, plus App State, Troy, and Arkansas State) will be tall tasks. But last year’s struggles didn’t really change anything about the Panthers’ potential in my eyes.
Last year’s offensive competence was costly in one way: it resulted in Elliott having to find a new offensive coordinator. Travis Trickett joined former Troy head coach Neal Brown at West Virginia, and Elliott replaced him with an old friend, Western Carolina offensive coordinator Brad Glenn, with whom Elliott had worked a decade ago at Appalachian State.
Under Glenn’s guidance, WCU quarterback Tyrie Adams threw for 2,417 yards and rushed for 1,006, and in only 11 games. Running backs averaged about 22 carries per game, and Adams added another 15 or so while attempting about 30 passes. WCU was beset by a horrible defense and went 3-8 as a result, but Glenn’s offense was pretty fun.
If he prefers dual-threat QBs like Adams, he should like what he’s got to work with in Dan Ellington. The JUCO transfer beat out longtime backup Aaron Winchester for the starting job in 2018, and after the aforementioned slow start, he ended up figuring some things out. He finished with 2,119 passing yards and 764 non-sack rushing yards (5.6 per carry), and for all of its other issues, GSU could run the damn ball: the Panthers finished 107th in Passing S&P+ but 43rd in Rushing S&P+ with Ellington leading the team on the ground.
That slow start was slow, by the way:
- First 4 games — Yards per play: 4.9 | Points per game: 17 | Average percentile performance: 15 percent
- Next 6 games — Yards per play: 6.1 | Points per game: 33 | Average percentile performance: 56 percent
- Last 2 games — Yards per play: 4.9 | Points per game: 16 | Average percentile performance: 36 percent
There was a late fade against App State and Georgia Southern, but the Panthers were downright exciting for about half the year on offense, and Trickett aside, most of the reasons for that excitement return.
Glenn’s got his choice of options in the backfield. Sophomore running back Seth Paige was instrumental in GSU’s midseason eruption — he had 42 carries for 270 yards (6.4 per carry) during the six good games — and he’s joined not only by others from last year’s rotation (senior Tra Barnett and sophomore Destin Coates) but also by a few youngsters who could threaten for more playing time. Sophomore Tucker Gregg, redshirt freshman Dawson Hill, and former three-star junior Darius Stubbs averaged 6.7 yards per carry in limited opportunities.
They’ll be running behind a line that appears sturdy. Left tackle Hunter Atkinson and left guard Shamarious Gilmore have combined for 60 career starts, and both earned all-conference votes last year. Three returning sophomores also combined for 19 more starts in 2018.
The receiving corps returns all but one player, but that one player was pretty dang good: Penny Hart finished his career with 202 catches and 2,950 yards and impressed in Senior Bowl practices. He was GSU’s best offensive player for most of his career, but enough other receivers stepped up that he ended up a bit more of a role player in 2018.
Hart led the way with 49 catches, but five other receivers were targeted at least 20 times; all of them produced at least a 60 percent catch rate and positive marginal efficiency numbers, and three of the five (Cornelius McCoy, Devin Gentry, Tamir Jones) averaged at least 13 yards per catch. Plus, star 2018 recruit Sam Pinckney caught three of five passes for 82 yards while redshirting. I’m much more confident in this receiving corps than I expected to be in the first year Post Hart.
Actually, that statement goes for the entire offense. It’s not hard to talk yourself into this unit taking another step forward this fall; Glenn should enjoy what he inherits.
This really is the opposite of last year’s preview, in which I found plenty to like about the defense but struggled for positive spin offensively. Granted, I ended up completely wrong in those impressions.
Georgia State basically did one thing well defensively last year: they hemmed in your run game most of the time. The Panthers ranked 30th in rushing marginal efficiency and 49th in opportunity rate (percentage of non-sack carries gaining at least four yards). That resulted in pretty good red zone defense, too — they were 36th in success rate between their 11 and 20, 21st inside the 10, and 38th on first-and-goal.
The problem: everything else.
- When you gained five yards on the ground, you probably gained another 15, too. GSU was 129th in rushing marginal explosiveness, which measures the magnitude of your successful plays. The Panthers had maybe the most all-or-nothing run defense in FBS.
- You didn’t even have to run if you didn’t want to. GSU was 129th in passing marginal efficiency and 130th in completion rate allowed. (Here’s your reminder that there are only 130 FBS teams.) Your quarterback was going to have a nice, clean pocket, too: they were 116th in sack rate and 130th in blitz downs sack rate.
Third-year defensive coordinator Nate Fuqua has now had a surprisingly strong season and a surprisingly terrible one. But at least he can blame youth for some of what happened in 2018. He was starting three freshmen in the secondary, after all, and in all, eight freshmen and seven sophomores ended up with at least 5.5 tackles. That’s a recipe for struggle.
Most of the reasons for the efficient run defense are back, though. That includes the foursome of end Terry Thomas, nose tackle Dontae Wilson, and inside linebackers Ed Curney and Trajan Stephens-McQueen. OLBs Victor Heyward and Jordan Strachan had their moments, too. No one stood out from a disruption standpoint, but they pursued the ball pretty well. And not having freshman safeties will help from a big-play perspective.
Getting young guys experience doesn’t automatically make them good, but at the very least, GSU’s secondary will be infinitely more experienced. Senior safety Remy Lazarus is back and full-strength, and as far as I can tell, so is cornerback Cedric Stone. He played a pivotal role in the win over Kennesaw State but missed the last nine games of the year.
Add those two to the legion of sophomores — corners Jaylon Jones, Quavian White, and Tyler Gore; safeties Chris Bacon and Jacorey Crawford — and maybe you get somewhere. Bacon had his moments, but the others struggled dramatically, basically from start to finish. Fuqua had to play the softest of soft coverage, and … maybe he gets to be more aggressive this year? Possibly?
Hart will be missed in the return game. He was one of the nation’s more efficient return men, and he was terrifying on the extremely rare occasion that opponents had to punt. (He had only nine punt returns all season but averaged nearly 18 yards per.)
Brandon Wright’s back, at least. The senior punter from Atlanta averaged 48.2 yards per kick last season, and while he outkicked his coverage at times, he was still 44th in punt efficiency. He needs to get a little bit more consistent as a place-kicker (93rd in FG efficiency), but he’s obviously got a booming leg.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|14-Sep||at Western Michigan||75||-17.2||16%|
|21-Sep||at Texas State||102||-8.9||30%|
|12-Oct||at Coastal Carolina||116||-2.1||45%|
|30-Nov||at Georgia Southern||81||-16.2||17%|
Were last year’s struggles in pass defense the product of growing pains or a lack of talent? How much will Cedric Stone’s return help? The answers to those questions will determine so much. The run defense should be efficient again, and the offense should be exciting, but if you can’t defend the pass, even a little bit, nothing else really matters.
The schedule is full of both opportunities and potential struggle. GSU has to go on the road to face three of its more beatable Sun Belt opponents (Texas State, Coastal Carolina, ULM) and hosts three of its less beatable ones. If you’re optimistic, you’re thinking “win two of three on the road and pull a home upset!” If you’re pessimistic, you’re thinking 0-6.
Either way, GSU should improve at least a bit, both on the field and in the win column, and not just because the bar’s low. Plus, quite a few of the best players on the team will be sophomores, and, QB aside, almost everyone will return in 2020. This is a slow build, and Elliott’s first-year success was a bit misleading, but as long as recruiting doesn’t dry up, you can see what Elliott’s trying to build, and the foundation will continue to build this fall.