The Ball State Cardinals have one of the easier non-conference schedules in the MAC, despite their week two game against Texas A&M in College Station. They will hope to capitalize on their home game against the Georgia State Panthers out of the Sun Belt Conference on October 17. The Panthers are in the midst of a rebuild, coming off of a 1-11 season (0-8 Sun Belt). Since its move to FBS, Georgia State has yet to win a game against a fellow FBS opponent, with its only win of the season coming against the Abilene Christian Wildcats, out of the Southland Conference. Although it has been a rough transition thus far, the Panthers have reason for cautious optimism heading into the season.
Head Coach Trent Miles is entering his third year at the helm of the program. Before joining Georgia State, Miles was the head coach of his alma mater, Indiana State. He took a one-win team to a winning season in just three seasons. In his third season coaching the Panthers, could history repeat itself? He has only won one game during his tenure, and the Panthers hadn't experienced much success in its brief history before the Trent Miles era. Since its start in 2010, Georgia State football has a total record of 11-46, going from FCS Independents, to the CAA, and, finally, to the Sun Belt. To make matters worse, fellow Georgia school Georgia Southern made the transition from FCS to FBS the same year as the Panthers. However, the Eagles found much more success, going 9-3 and winning the Sun Belt in their first year at the highest level of college football. The Panthers are itching for success, and after a season full of injuries and inexperience, the fans might be in for a season to be proud of.
Overall, the team should be more prepared to win, with 17 total starters returning. Georgia State has also become somewhat of a lifeline for some of those UAB players that were forced to transfer schools. Six former Dragons will be Panthers come fall. This helps tremendously, as depth was a major issue last season.
Last season, the Georgia State offense scored nearly 23 points per contest. This stat was one of the worst in the Sun Belt Conference, along with the rest of the FBS. The inability to score can be attributed to a couple of reasons, such as the frequency of injuries to running backs. Before the fifth game of the season, three season-ending injuries and one transfer away had happened to the Panther running back core. This led Miles to give the majority of the carries to converted corner back Marcus Caffey (354 yards, 3.8 avg., 3 TD's). The passing game, however, was the team's major strength. Passing accounted for over 70% of Georgia State's total offensive production.
At one of the most experienced positions, senior quarterback Nick Arbuckle is the leader of the Panther offense. He threw for over 3,000 yards in 2014, earning himself the honor of the Sun Belt Conference newcomer of the year, since he transferred in from junior college. He returns a talented crop of receivers including senior leading receiver Donovan Harden, junior receiver Robert Davis, and potential NFL tight end Joel Ruiz (John Mackey award watch list). Those three combined for over 2,000 yards receiving and 12 TD's. Arbuckle will also be aided by the addition of UAB senior wide receiver transfer Nyiakki Height, making the Georgia State receiving core one of the stronger units in the Sun Belt.
The aforementioned running back disaster of 2014 has a number of possible solutions this season. The new crop cannot perform much worse, and more experience can and will lead to better rushing numbers. Last season's leading rusher Marcus Caffey will make the move back to corner, and there will be a running back competition between sophomore Kyler Neal, junior Kendrick Dorn, and junior Jonathan Jean-Bart. Neal is thought to be the man for the spot, but time will tell, and it is good news for the Panthers that they will have three starting-caliber running backs to fill in, in case of injury. Needless to say, the Panther running backs should be more successful this season.
The defensive side of the football was a major weakness for the Panthers last season. They allowed over 43 points per game, and not a lot of teams in the country could win with a defense allowing that many points in a single game. However, the youth that struggled last season is now experienced, and should be able to perform at a higher level. Georgia State's defense is returning nine total starters.
The defensive line should be stronger, with the addition of 6-foot-4, 315 pound sophomore nose guard Julien Laurent out of a year in junior college. The rest of the defensive line will be returning, in juniors Shawayne Lawrence and Mackendy Cheridor, who, although last season's sack numbers weren't impressive, are looking to be a much more forceful group.
Although two new starters will be entering the linebacking core, the group is still poised for a better showing than last season. The new starters include UAB transfer Alonzo McGee Jr. and former Michigan signee Kaleb Ringer. This is a great chance at a breakout year for these players.
The defensive backfield will be loaded with depth this season, with the help of three transfers. The experience and talent among seniors Marcus Caffey, Bruce Dukes, and Tarris Batiste will certainly help the squad improve from last year.
In what might be a closer game than most expect, Georgia State is traveling to Indiana to face Ball State on October 17.