Georgia State’s success means elevated expectations in Sun Belt Conference

Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott (left) talks with radio host David Schultz of Sports Radio 105.5 in Mobile, Ala.

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Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott (left) talks with radio host David Schultz of Sports Radio 105.5 in Mobile, Ala.

NEW ORLEANS — Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott spent most of his Tuesday with a headset strapped to his head or a microphone shoved in his face at the Sun Belt Conference Media Days. He likely needed a lozenge before rushing to the airport to catch that final Delta flight back home to Atlanta at the end of a long day.

Elliott and the school’s two player representatives, linebacker Blake Carroll and center Malik Sumter, drew a steady stream of inquisitors from newspaper and broadcast outlets throughout the conference’s sizable geographical footprint. Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill even stopped by and chatted up the players for a few minutes during lunch.

“I think people have really noticed our football program, how much it’s improved from where we were to where we are,” Elliott said. “And you get a sense that people feel like we’re true contenders. I mean, they talk about us like that.”

That’s what’s come to be the new normal for the Panthers, who set a school record with eight wins last season and won a bowl game for the second consecutive season.

“I think people have really noticed our football program, how much it's improved from where we were to where we are."

- Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott

This week the Sun Belt coaches voted Georgia State to finish third in the powerful Eastern Division, behind only powerhouses Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina. The Panthers even received a first-place vote.

“I’d like to know who voted us first,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t me.”

Carroll, who was sporting his rings from the Camellia Bowl and LendingTree Bowl, said, “I feel like we’re finally getting the attention and respect that we deserve. But I feel like we have a long way to go. I’m happy that we’ve got a little bit of respect, but we’ve still got respect to earn.”

Georgia State was close last season, tying for second in the league. The Panthers beat Coastal Carolina, their first win over a ranked team. They had eventual Sun Belt champion Louisiana-Lafayette on the ropes but couldn’t finish it off. Their only bad loss came against Appalachian State.

“We were right there a year ago, and I feel like we’re at the same spot,” Elliott said. “We’ve got a little bit more veteran leadership. Guys are a year older, and there’s a sense that this team wants to see it through.”

And Elliott, who has 18 starters returning, isn’t one to shy away from high expectations.

“We understand what it takes to compete for the conference championship, and with the four (contending) new teams, it makes it even more difficult,” Elliott said. “With these young men we have a chance to compete and ultimately win the championship, and I think it’s time. If you don’t talk about it and bring it to the forefront, how are you going to win it.”

Georgia State had eight players named to the preseason All-Sun Belt team and four players named to a variety of national watch lists.

Antavious Lane, the hard-hitting safety, learned Tuesday that he had been added to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list, which is given to the national defensive player of the year. Lane, a junior from West Palm Beach, Fla., holds the school record with nine career interceptions. Lane previously was named to the Jim Thorpe Award list, given to the nation’s top defensive back.

Sumter, a super-senior center from Irmo, S.C., was added to the watch list for the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best interior lineman. A four-year starter and three-time Sun Belt selection at center, Sumter earlier was named to the Rimington Award watch list, given to the nation’s best center.

Running backs Tucker Gregg, a super senior from Chatsworth, and Jamyest Williams, a super senior from Grayson, were earlier named to the watch list for the Doak Walker Award that goes to the nation’s top running back.

Georgia State opens practice Aug. 4 and starts the season Sept. 3 at South Carolina.