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2021 Camellia Bowl Preview: Ball State Cardinals vs. Georgia State Panthers

The Cardinals look to make it back-to-back bowl wins against a red hot Georgia State squad.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Ball State vs San Jose State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, December 25 at 2:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Cramton Bowl — Montgomery, AL
  • Spread: Georgia State (-5.5)
  • ESPN FPI: Georgia State has 56.0% chance to win
  • All-time series: Series tied, 1-1
  • Last matchup: Ball State 31, Georgia State 21 — September 2, 2016
  • Ball State’s last bowl: 2020 Arizona Bowl vs. San Jose State (W, 34-13)
  • Georgia State’s last bowl: 2020 LendingTree Bowl vs. WKU (W, 39-21)

Setting the scene

For the second consecutive year, we’re getting Christmas Day football. After zero college football games on the day from 2004-19, the Camellia Bowl is breaking in a new tradition of taking center stage on Dec. 25.

The matchup features two programs which overcame slow starts to clinch bowl eligibility. Ball State shed off a 1-3 standing and won in the final week of the regular season to move to 6-6. Meanwhile, Georgia State stumbled out of the gate to 1-4 before winning six of its last seven to improve to 7-5.

Only three combined bowl wins exist between the Cardinals and Panthers, so one program will look to stock the trophy shelves on campus with some new Camellia Bowl memorabilia.

Ball State Cardinals outlook

Last December was a dream campaign for Ball State. The Cardinals won their first MAC championship since 1996 and followed that title up with its first-ever bowl win. They surged past San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl, 34-13, and crashed into the final AP Poll for the first time in program history.

While the MAC championship and AP ranking are off the table this year, Ball State can still relive last December as it embarks on a quest for back-to-back bowl wins.

The Cardinals trot out a similar team to the 2020 squad that was labeled Arizona Bowl champions. The senior laden roster is led Drew Plitt, who will be making his 36th consecutive start as Ball State’s quarterback. Plitt is comfortably third all-time in passing yards for the program and would have to explode for a career-best 465 yards on Christmas to reach Nate Davis. The longtime signal caller looks to maintain his accuracy in his sendoff performance, building on his 15 touchdown passes to just two interceptions he posted over his last eight games.

Ball State’s rushing attack was not producing much at the beginning of the season, but the Cardinals discovered a 6’1”, 215 pound freshman halfback to provide a spark to the run game later in the year. Carson Steele racked up three 100-yard games in the second half of the regular season, and he’ll look to pierce through a talented run defense which limits opponents to an FBS top 25 average of 3.6 yards per carry.

The most notable contributor on this offense is an FBS record holder. In the regular season finale, wide receiver Justin Hall tied former Central Michigan receiver Bryan Anderson for the FBS record of most consecutive games with a reception. If Hall hauls one in Saturday, he becomes the standalone leader with 55 consecutive games. Hall is also the FBS active leader in receptions and receiving yards heading into his final game. The versatile star also earned All-MAC honors as a kick returner and rushed for 255 yards and six touchdowns this year, so he’s capable of producing in all aspects of the game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Ball State at Akron
Justin Hall is a rare 5-time All-MAC selection. The talented wide receiver looks to close off a storied career in Montgomery after missing last year’s Arizona Bowl.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensively, Ball State displays as veteran of a defense as there is in college football. Nine of 11 starters on the unit are seniors are graduates, including both names in the talented safety tandem of Bryce Cosby and Brett Anderson. Anderson has two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery this year, while Cosby touts a stacked résumé including 100 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions, and 10.5 tackles for loss. Cosby won Defensive MVP honors of the 2020 Arizona Bowl with nine tackles and an interception and will aim to deliver one final clinic in the postseason.

Cosby is one of two Cardinals to reach the century mark in tackles. The other is inside linebacker Jaylin Thomas who recently collected his second All-MAC team selection. Thomas has been particularly useful in coverage this season, garnering a team-high four interceptions. Ball State picks off passes at the highest rate in the MAC, and the ability to produce turnovers often offsets the fact that this defense is ranked 95th in yards allowed per contest.

Georgia State Panthers outlook

There aren’t many hotter teams in the country than Shawn Elliott’s team from Atlanta. Georgia State shook off a difficult non-conference schedule and won six of its final seven outings, with the only loss being a 4-point stumble against a 13-1 Louisiana team.

FCS transfer Darren Grainger took over the starting quarterback role this season and presented smart-decision making. The Conway, SC native tossed 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions, while serving as the starter for the Panthers’ signature win over his hometown Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. Grainger isn’t required to light up defenses with 300 yards, and he only surpassed 200 passing yards on one occasion. However, his mobility adds an element to this offense which can be difficult to contain. With 553 rushing yards this season, Grainger ranks third on the roster.

Two running backs are approaching 900-yard territory in an offense which churns out the eighth most rushing yards per game in the FBS. Featured running back Destin Coates entered the transfer portal in October, but Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams ensured that no drop-off would be had in the position group. The two have 899 and 810 rushing yards this season, respectively, and both backs have nine end zone appearances. Gregg caught fire at midseason with a pair of 100-yard games, while Williams attained the century mark in the Panthers’ two most recent contests.

Georgia State’s rushing centric offense ranks 120th in passing yards in the FBS, but there are still viable targets Ball State’s secondary must contain. Jamari Thrash is the headliner with team-highs in receptions (31) and yards (447), but the Panthers enjoy heavy tight end usage with Roger Carter — the only other 300-yard receiver on the team.

Defensively, the Panthers are on quite a tear. Only one opponent scored more than 21 points in Georgia State’s final seven games. The run defense yields a highly respectable 3.6 yards per carry and overall, the team forces 1.6 turnovers per game. Georgia State also exhibits a strong pass rush which is tied for 28th in sack average. Senior inside linebacker Blake Carroll is the chief sack master of the unit with a season total of 5.5 in addition to two forced fumbles and 10 tackles for loss.

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Blake Carroll locked up Third Team All-Sun Belt status as Georgia State’s top linebacker. Carroll looks to close out his senior campaign with a second consecutive bowl win.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One jersey number Plitt must be wary of when dropping back to pass is No. 34. Those digits are donned by safety Antavious Lane, who is one of the best ballhawks in the Sun Belt. Lane has four interceptions this year and six pass breakups, and he can strike from anywhere on the field with 71 tackles.


It’s hard to pick against Georgia State right now. The Panthers have been running straight through opponents without much resistance, and on Saturday, they’ll test their mettle against the nation’s 92nd ranked run-stopping unit.

The duo of Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams will present plenty of challenges for Ball State. In order for the Cardinals to win back-to-back bowl games, the linebackers must focus on containing the boundaries and avoiding missed tackles. Offensively, the Cardinals have been inconsistent, but the team is 3-1 when Drew Plitt exceeds the 200-yard passing mark this season.

Thus, getting Justin Hall and the receivers involved is the offensive key to victory. It will be a tall task considering Georgia State’s high level of defensive play since early October, and the Panthers are certainly a formidable opponent for Mike Neu’s team in this Christmas Day clash.

Prediction: Georgia State 27, Ball State 14