Georgia State, Shawn Elliott finding opportunity in difficult times

Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott exhorts during the Panthers early-season victory over East Carolina. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott exhorts during the Panthers early-season victory over East Carolina. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

When it was put to Georgia State football coach Shawn Elliott that he and the Panthers seem to be making the most of a horrible 2020, he felt the need to correct the question. Because correcting is what coaches do.

“We’re able to play this great game. You can use the term ‘horrible’ or not, but if we think like that, it just bleeds us out. We’re very fortunate to be able to play,” he said earlier this week.

Georgia State hardly has been immune from the health challenges of the day. Those have included a diagnosis of a heart condition for a quarterback, later reversed, and a game postponement over positive virus-test results, also later said to be in error. But remaining stalwart in the face of all that has had its rewards.

Even with an out-of-conference game against Alabama canceled because of coronavirus, Georgia State will get its second test in five games against a ranked opponent Saturday at home against No. 20 Coastal Carolina. Certain of its Sun Belt Conference brethren have stepped into the void and confusion created by the virus and inserted themselves into the Top 25.

In one Saturday at the beginning of all this, the Sun Belt ravaged the Big 12, Louisiana-Lafayette beating Iowa State, Arkansas State beating Kansas State and Coastal Carolina beating Kansas. It was the best of times for the conference, the first time in 20 years that three teams from the league had beaten Power Five opponents on the same day.

Briefly, Louisiana-Lafayette edged into the national rankings. The Chanticleers find themselves there now. “It’s really good for the Sun Belt Conference,” Elliott said. “I’m thrilled to death that these teams are ranked, and they’re worthy of their rankings. They’re very good, well-coached teams with great talent.”

Elliott bragged on his peers just a bit more: “We got good quality players in this league, with quality coaches. We beat Tennessee a year ago. Coastal Carolina has defeated Kansas twice now in the last two years. You have a defeat over Kansas State, a defeat over Iowa State. Troy goes and beats LSU a few years back (2017). We’re playing good football. I don’t think anybody looks down at our conference and says it’s one of those ‘cupcake contests’ like they used to back in the day.”

Of course, that raises the question of when the 11-year-old Georgia State program, now 2-2 with an overtime loss to then-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette and a 59-52 shootout loss to Arkansas State, might itself join a top-25 list?

Could it have happened already, perhaps, if a bounce or two had gone the Panthers' way in their two close losses? Although, close just never cuts it in the beauty contest of rankings.

“We are 2-2, and we understand that’s who we are because that’s what our record is. But we’re a very confident bunch,” Elliott said.

Enough confidence runs through the program that Georgia State just extended Elliott’s contract three more years, to 2024, for a reported $750,000 per. That gifts Elliott, who is 18-23 in his three-plus seasons, with stability in most unstable times.

“I think our football program is growing every single day; that’s something to be proud of. And I really look forward to seeing exactly how far we can take this program,” he said.

With ESPN’s various networks particularly hungry for college football content this season, as some conferences started up late and some not at all, the Panthers were happy to perform before any camera. Every game this season has had a nationwide platform – Saturday’s noon game will be on ESPNU.

That’s a big deal for a still-young program trying to get its name out there. And particularly important when the audience may include some curious recruit who because of restrictions to in-person visits now has no other way to get familiar.

The result, Elliott said, was that “every single week after we play, we have several different individuals pick up the phone and want to know more about us.”

“Some are committed to other programs; some are still being heavily recruited,” he said. “And they want to know more about the Georgia State offense or defense or our kicking situation that they see out there. It has been fantastic to have that.”

What the audience sees now is a team with a puncher’s chance to hang with anybody. The Panthers lead the Sun Belt in scoring, at 42 a game. Trouble arises, though, when you score 52 and still don’t win, as against Arkansas State two weeks ago.

“I talk about our confidence a lot,” Elliott said. “We are pretty productive offensively; we feel we can go out there and stand up against most defenses. In general, I think all our players have a cool confidence about them. Not a cockiness – because there’s a huge difference – but a confidence that makes them feel like they can go out and compete each and every week.”

All of which is not horrible at all.

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