Georgia State players prepare to take the field at Georgia State Stadium for their game against Troy on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photo by Todd Drexler)

Georgia State players have eyes set on Sun Belt title

The goals have dramatically changed for a Georgia State football team that was the preseason pick to finish last in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division. Not only are the Panthers bowl-eligible for the third time in school history, they have a bigger prize as their goal. 

They’re shooting for the Sun Belt championship, a goal that received a boost from Georgia Southern’s 24-21 upset victory against No. 20 Appalachian State on Thursday night.

“The bowl game wasn’t really our goal,” quarterback Dan Ellington said. “It feels good knowing we’re going to get an extra game, but the Sun Belt championship is our goal.”

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Entering the weekend, the Panthers sit tied with Georgia Southern for second in the Sun Belt East, a half-game behind Appalachian State. There’s a three-way tie in the loss column.

The Panthers (6-2, 3-1) have won four consecutive games, tying the program record (2010 and 2015). After this week’s bye, their schedule includes a trip to Louisiana-Monroe (3-4, 2-1), home games against Appalachian State (7-1, 4-1) and South Alabama (1-7, 0-4) and a visit to arch-rival Georgia Southern (5-3, 3-1). A trip to the title game won’t be easy, but it isn’t impossible. 

“We have an opportunity -- if we achieve what I think we can achieve in practice – we’ve got a chance to go fight for that championship,” coach Shawn Elliott said. “That is certainly something I would challenge our football team with and I want them to understand we have the capability of competing for it.”

Spirits are extremely high after the Panthers took down Troy last week. The offense put up 579 total yards and set another school record by rushing for 390 yards against the nation’s No. 11-ranked team against the run. Senior tailback Tra Barnett set a school record for rushing yards (242), became the school’s all-time rushing leader and was named the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Week. Barnett needs 72 yards to become the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher.

The progress really doesn’t surprise Elliott, who saw beyond last year’s 2-10 record and recognized the talent that was returning. 

“If you looked at it from a production standpoint, we had a lot of guys returning,” Elliott said. “We just didn’t lose a whole lot. I knew we’d have to do some growing up and it was evident early that we had great leadership. You look for strong leadership to help determine where you are as a football team. We had such a positive off-season and the guys believed they could achieve.”

Elliott said there was no “aha” moment during the season when it all came together. There was just incremental growth leading to the winning streak. 

“We had shown some glimpses, but needed everything to be put together,” he said. 

Elliott said the communication between the staff and the players has coincided with the team’s improvement. 

“It’s one of the more remarkable things I’ve seen,” Elliott said. “We can talk about anything, from X’s and O’s to, ‘Hey, what are you doing Tuesday night?’ We are so relaxed around each other. When you witness it, you know it’s right. The camaraderie we have as a staff and players is something special.”

Georgia State has played in two bowl games, but has never appeared in the Sun Belt Championship game. That likely would require the Panthers to run the table, which would include a first-ever victory against Appalachian State. Georgia State is 0-5 against the Mountaineers.

“It’s great to be bowl-eligible,” Elliott said. “But we have an opportunity to do so much more than go to a bowl game and that’s why I’m so proud.” 

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