Georgia State ready for Sun Belt play

Credit: Elaine Thompson / AP

Credit: Elaine Thompson / AP

Georgia State is through with almost all of its non-conference games and can concentrate on trying to win the Sun Belt.

It may seem an odd belief considering the Panthers (1-3, 0-1) have one victory in their past 20 games. But the Sun Belt is wide open this season, and coach Trent Miles said the team is much improved.

“Anybody in our conference can beat anybody else,” he said.

The path will start Saturday at Louisiana-Lafayette, an example of the bizarre nature of the conference this season.

The Ragin’ Cajuns were the unanimous pick to defend their Sun Belt title, but are 1-3. Miles said their record is deceiving because the losses were to Ole Miss, Louisiana Tech and Boise State.

“You can’t get caught in that record,” Miles said.

The Cajuns’ normally powerful offense has averaged only 22.2 points and 372.5 yards per game this season, compared with the 33.8 points and 416.8 yards it averaged last season. The reasons are simple: The Cajuns have played two quality opponents in Ole Miss and Boise State, and quarterback Terrance Broadway was without dangerous wide receiver Jamal Robinson in those games.

Robinson averaged 66.3 receiving yards last season and scored eight touchdowns. He is expected to return against the Panthers.

Like the Panthers, the Cajuns look forward to conference play, which comes with a chance to build upon what was learned.

“It is for us a new season,” Louisiana Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said.

Though, he, Broadway and the Cajuns aren’t operating at the same pace as last season, they still will provide a challenge for a Georgia State defense that has struggled this season.

The Panthers have allowed at least 34 points in four games and 435 yards in three games. They spent the bye week working on fundamentals, technique and schemes … everything that can keep them in games and the race for the Sun Belt.

The Panthers will try to get off on the right foot with a good news/bad news mix of injuries as it prepares to play seven of its next eight games within the conference after playing three of its first four outside the conference. The team should be boosted by the return of offensive lineman Taylor Evans, who has missed the first four games because of an elbow injury, but is back working with the starters at guard.

The running backs, which learned in the past two weeks that they will be without leading rusher Kyler Neal (knee), second-leading rusher Krysten Hammon (left the program) and backup Jonathan Jean-Bart (knee) for the rest of the season, did see the return of Gerald Howse (hand) for the first time this season. The group also got a possible new starter in Marcus Caffey, who was moved over after starting the first four games at cornerback.

Miles said the team has suffered no more injuries than any other team in the Sun Belt.

So, they are again on a mostly level playing field as the teams get into the heart of the conference, which seems ripe for the taking.

“We have to start off with a win,” quarterback Nick Arbuckle said. “We are already starting a step behind because we lost to New Mexico State, a game that we could have won, which is a shame.”

Of course, all things being equal, Louisiana Lafayette is just as anxious as Georgia State.

“We really feel like we are due,” Hudspeth said. “We really feel like our best football is ahead of us.”