Georgia State-Georgia Southern rivalry gets deserved turn in spotlight

Darren Grainger, the Georgia State quarterback, threw for 185 yards and ran for 70 in the 41-33 win over Georgia Southern on Oct. 8 at Center Parc Stadium.

Credit: Christopher Moore

Credit: Christopher Moore

Darren Grainger, the Georgia State quarterback, threw for 185 yards and ran for 70 in the 41-33 win over Georgia Southern on Oct. 8 at Center Parc Stadium.

When he was a high school prospect at Dooly County High in South Georgia, Travis Glover was invited for a campus visit by Georgia Southern.

The offensive lineman ultimately signed with Georgia State, where he has developed into a five-year starter, a rarity enabled by eligibility extended because of COVID-19. Glover never made it to Statesboro for his visit. Despite its relative proximity, Georgia Southern was a school he just never liked.

“I don’t know, there’s just something about it,” Glover said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Just looking at the logo, I don’t know, just never really liked it.”

Inject that into your veins, Panthers fans — the Georgia Southern logo is a no-go. And Thursday night, when the two sides meet in arguably the biggest game in the series’ brief history, it will be far more than a squabble over fonts.

“It’s always going to be a competitive game,” Glover said. “Probably have a little bit more to it this time.”

It’s fitting and right that, thanks to the game’s 7:30 p.m. Thursday time slot and the ESPN2 coverage, Georgia Southern-Georgia State should get a much bigger audience than usual. With respect to Georgia Tech-Georgia, in terms of competitiveness, this has been the better rivalry in recent years. It’s not nearly as big or as old, but the relative evenness between the two teams and the fact that they’re in each other’s way for the same prize — the Sun Belt East Division title, a step to playing for the conference championship — in some ways make this a more compelling matchup.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott told the AJC. “Anytime you have two in-state institutions right here in the same conference, it makes for a pretty good competition. Ever since I’ve been here, I think it’s a great game. I think it’s a really healthy rivalry. I’m always excited to go play it.”

Georgia State leads the series 6-3 and has won the past three, but each of those games has been decided by one possession. A year ago, the two teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards of offense in a 41-33 decision for the Panthers decided in the final minutes. The past three Tech-UGA games, meanwhile, have been decided by an average of 37.7 points. In recent years, the Yellow Jackets have not had nearly as much on the table as have the Bulldogs, although bowl eligibility was on the line last year.

The stakes for Thursday’s game are meaningful for both sides. The Panthers are 6-1, their best start in program history after a down season in 2022 (4-8). The Eagles are 5-2 in their second season with coach Clay Helton. It’s only the second time that the teams have met when both had winning records. However, given Helton’s promising start at Georgia Southern (the Eagles will qualify for a bowl for the second year in a row with one more win) and the overall success that Elliott has effected at Georgia State (the Panthers are bowl bound for the fourth time in the past five seasons), it seems likely that the rivalry has been energized.

“I got my first taste of it last year,” Helton said at a news conference Monday in Statesboro. “I was really impressed with both teams — just the competitiveness of the game, the emotions of the game, how important it was to both teams. And how well it was competed. It was a hell of a game. It was a shootout. So it is important. It’s important for a lot of reasons.”

This season, they’re both in position to win the division title — Georgia State is 3-1 in league play and Georgia Southern is 2-1 — and go on to play for the Sun Belt championship. It could well be an elimination game in the division title chase. (James Madison leads the Sun Belt East at 4-0, but is ineligible to play for the championship as it is transitioning to FBS.)

Beyond that, the two sides compete for recruits in Georgia and beyond the state’s borders.

Even better, two of the better quarterbacks in the Sun Belt will be showcased — Georgia State’s Darren Grainger and Georgia Southern’s Davis Brin. The two lead high-tempo offenses that can throw the ball around in an entertaining style.

Grainger is a dual-threat quarterback who leads the conference in completion percentage (69.5%) and touchdown/interception ratio (10/2) and has run for 368 yards. “He means the world to us,” Elliott said of Grainger.

Brin leads the league in passing yards per game (303.1). “It’s fun to watch (Brin) play because he knows the game so well,” Elliott said.

Georgia State running back Marcus Carroll (Hapeville Charter Academy) averages 121.7 yards per game, second-most in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern wide receiver Khaleb Hood (Eagle’s Landing Christian) has caught 8.1 passes per game, most in the Sun Belt and third nationally.

Another dollop of import to the night: The game will be attended by two state coaching greats, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson and Georgia’s Mark Richt. Johnson, who won two Division I-AA (now FCS) national titles with the Eagles, will be honored for his impending induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Richt, another Hall of Fame inductee, will be there to support his nephew Elijah Hynes, an Eagles walk-on.

In terms of exposure for a highly meaningful game for both teams, opportunities like this don’t arrive often for Sun Belt schools. Viewership for Group of 5 schools suffers when up against the unending slate of Saturday power-conference games. But eyeballs alight the rest of the week.

In the first eight weeks of the season, the highest-rated game between two teams from outside the power conferences has been played on a day besides Saturday, according to Sports Media Watch data. In the other three weeks, it was the second highest-rated game.

That includes Georgia State’s Sept. 21 Thursday night game against Coastal Carolina, which drew 671,000 viewers on ESPN and was the top non-P5 game. By comparison, when Tech played Wake Forest two days later on the CW, the viewership was less than half that.

This is the second time this season that Georgia State will play a Thursday night game on the road after playing a Saturday night road game, “but anytime we can get on national TV and get that exposure for our program, for our school, we’re certainly more than fine to do it,” Georgia State Athletic Director Charlie Cobb told the AJC.

It figures to be worth the watch.