Georgia State only too happy to go bowling in 2020

Georgia State quarterback Cornelious Brown IV will have one more chance to sling it around Saturday in a bowl game in Mobile, Ala., against Western Kentucky. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia State quarterback Cornelious Brown IV will have one more chance to sling it around Saturday in a bowl game in Mobile, Ala., against Western Kentucky. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia is planning to go to a bowl game, and it’s a very nice New Year’s Day game at that. Nearby, in Atlanta against an unbeaten opponent with a chip on its shoulder, Cincinnati. But the Bulldogs’ opt outs are mounting – nine at last count – as preparing for a professional career trumps even a Peach Bowl fleece pullover.

As farcical as it may sound, a 3-7 Georgia Tech team possibly could have backdoored a bowl bid this season if enough other teams fell out in this time of COVID-19 (and they are, by the dozens). But the Yellow Jackets quietly made it known they’d just as soon not be anyone’s last-second, desperation prom date.

Ah, but when Georgia State flies to Mobile, Ala., on Christmas evening for a Dec. 26 LendingTree Bowl meeting with Western Kentucky, it will go without reservation or trepidation.

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The Panthers coach, Shawn Elliott, just doesn’t seem like an opt-out kind of guy.

“Never once did I think about opting out and not playing this game. We’re football players, I’m a football coach and that’s what we do,” Elliott said earlier this week. “The powers that be said we are playing this season, and it only makes sense that once you start something, you finish it. And that’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to try to finish it in Mobile.”

A team like 5-6 Virginia Tech may have left the matter up to its players, who voted to decline any bowl bid, snapping a streak of 27 consecutive bowl games. That was the longest active one in major college football. Said Hokies coach Justin Fuente, whose team dealt with a long string of COVID issues: “I think they’re tired. It’s been really, really difficult, and I think their mental health is an important part of what we should take into consideration, how they’ve had to live their lives and what they’ve been doing and sacrificing. They’ve sacrificed enough.”

There was no vote at Georgia State. And, by the way, they’re tired, too, their coach said.

“We were invited and rewarded with a bowl trip because we earned that opportunity,” Elliott said. “Never once was it a vote. If there were individuals that didn’t want to play, they certainly could have not played. But I can tell you one thing, that never once came up.

“Nobody opted out, nobody said a word, and we’re heading to Mobile at full force.”

Even in the most trying of times, playing in a bowl game appears to be very important for the young Panthers program. It is nothing to be taken for granted. Nothing to be sniffed at. The Panthers are only rounding out their eighth season at the Division I FBS level, and the fact that this is their third bowl in four years, and fourth in six, is a defining point of pride for them. At some level, Cure Bowls, Arizona Bowls and LendingTree Bowls add up.

Honestly, bowl trips this year may be, as Georgia State Athletic Director Charlie Cobb put it, “basically glorified, extended road games.” For the Panthers, there will be none of the usual sampling of the host city that comes with bowl games. Flying in the night before and flying out the day after, they will have to forego the wonders of Mobile.

Players will get to pick out their bowl gifts once there (there is a $550 max), to be shipped to them afterward. And then they’ll fall into a routine not unlike a road trip to play, say, App State.

It is impossible to make this into a traditional “bowl experience.” Still, Elliott has recognized the need to lighten up on practice and introduce a bit more fun into them than usual. Thus, Christmas music blared Wednesday on the field before the players were set free until Friday. The coach said his guys have responded well to carrying over this difficult season through the holidays.

“Our team has been bebopping around. They’ve been in great spirits, had some really upbeat practices,” Elliott said. “We don’t have a huge amount of bowl experience; this is still new to us. I think they’re really thrilled to death to be going.”

The Sun Belt Conference has been all-in with the bowls, five teams scheduled to play before it’s all over, three of them playing Saturday. Of course, there is a financial element to all this, with bowl pay-outs, some in seven figures, flowing through the conference office and filtering out to the teams.

With so many other teams deciding that it was enough to just get through whatever irregular season they could manage in 2020, what’s in this weekend for the Panthers?

“It’s a reward for the kids. We thought a lot about it,” Cobb said. “Early on there was so much uncertainty around the idea of do you really want to play? Our kids wanted to play – if we could do it safely. Once we figured out we could do it safely, the idea was let’s play because we’re all built to be competitors. Here’s another opportunity to play. And the exposure we get from it, that’s a continuation of trying to build football success here.”

“Our first bowl win four years ago (against these same Hilltoppers) was really special for us,” Elliott said. “It garnered a lot of attention, both recruiting and nation-wide. We’re hoping to go down there and have the opportunity to do the same thing.”

So, it’s the LendingTree Bowl, 5-4 Georgia State vs. 5-6 Western Kentucky, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on the big sports four-letter network. A day-after-Christmas light snack featuring a Western Kentucky team that has won its past three games, with a prickly defense giving up an average of 14 points in its past four. Versus a Georgia State team that has won three of its past four and is left wondering how much better its record could have been (three of the Panthers losses were by a combined 14 points).

And, in this time of bowl anxiety, the lead Panther will tell you he is thrilled to be here and eager to witness one more coming-of-age act for his program.

Said Elliott, “We’re still babies. I know in the time I’ve been here we’ve learned how to crawl and walk and now we’re learning to sprint a little bit. That’s an exciting thing to see.”

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