Grading Georgia State’s 2020 football season

The team finished 6-4 and 4-4 overall in the Sun Belt Conference, capped off by a 39-21 beatdown of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the LendingTree Bowl. Photo Submitted by Xavier Triche

The year 2020 saw Georgia State football cancel games and experience COVID-19 scares. But it gave the team something to celebrate as well. 

The team finished 6-4 overall with a 4-4 conference record, capped off by a 39-21 beatdown of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the LendingTree Bowl. 

With the season in the rear-view mirror, let’s see how the Panthers fared in 2020.

The Highs

Georgia State finished with six wins in Shawn Elliott’s third season as head coach. The team also captured their second consecutive winning season, a first for the program. After a seven-win campaign in 2019, this season was supposed to be a rebuilding season, with a new quarterback under center. 

The Offense

The offense proved to be a significant high point in the 2020 season. Georgia State’s offense ranked 32nd nationally in scoring and scored 30 or more points in all but one of their 10 games. 

“I trust our offense to be able to come out and score consistently,” Elliott said.

Quarterback Play

Redshirt freshman Cornelious “Quad” Brown won the starting job in the summer and never looked back. He threw for over 2000 yards and 17 touchdowns and even garnered Sun Belt Player of the Week after throwing for over 400 yards versus Louisiana-Monroe. Brown also led the Panthers to big wins against rival Georgia Southern and East Carolina.

“If I did my job in distributing the football, I knew we’d break open, and that’s what we did,” Brown said.

Brown’s best game was in the LendingTree Bowl. Again, he threw for over 200 yards and three touchdowns against the Hilltoppers. With a year like 2020, it is safe to assume Brown won the starting job for 2021 again.

Rise of the Pass Rush

Georgia State’s pass rush also came alive in 2020. The team was seventh in the nation with 35 sacks, led by Hardrick Willis’ six. The junior defensive end was a force in the conference and created pressure on opposing offensive lines. The pass rush kept the Panthers in games and proved a significant improvement from the 2019 season.

“Applying pressure to the quarterback allows for our defense to gain more momentum,” Willis said. “It puts our team in a great position to win games.” 

The pass rush is an achievement, and something the Panthers did not have in 2019. Elliott understands that the defense will win ball games, especially with the front seven. As the team entered the season, the defense’s front seven remained a concern. It’s safe to say they proved the doubters wrong. 

‘I love the way our guys have been able to get after the quarterback,” Elliott said. “Seeing guys like Willis getting to the QB is something I love to see as a coach.”

With recruits coming in, the pass rush should continue to be a strength for the defense. 

Georgia State’s pass rush also became the first front seven to place inside the top 100 nationally for sacks. With the emergence of the pass rush comes new respect from opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines. The pass rush can also become a consistent force in the Sun Belt and possibly beyond if it can maintain its dominance. 

The Lows

Unfortunately, the 2020 season saw quite a few bad moments from the Panthers. While some of these problems are easy fixes, others are more concerning and need urgent attention for the next season.

Poor Play vs. Ranked Opponents

Georgia State played two ranked opponents and hosted both games.

Their first game of the season came against the No. 19 Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns, a 34-31 loss in overtime. Then on Halloween, the Panthers hosted the No. 20 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers and lost 51-0. 

In one game, Georgia State blew a 21-7 lead; they did not even get a field goal in the other one. The Panthers missed two significant chances at making a statement to both the conference and the college football world. 

While it was their first game, the Panthers had a chance to make history by beating their first ranked opponent after getting their first win vs. a power five program last season. Even with a capacity crowd, the Panthers had a home-field advantage but left the fanbase deflated after leaving the Credit Parc Stadium. 

“I don’t believe in moral victories,” Elliott said after losing the Ragin’ Cajuns. “We allowed them to get back into the game.”

When the Panthers played Coastal Carolina, it was a complete trainwreck. 

Yes, the Chanticleers are talented, but 51-0 is a tough pill to swallow. The score is the largest margin of defeat in Center Parc Stadium and highlighted the gap between the Panthers and the Sun Belt’s best. 

While the Panthers are a good team in the Sun Belt, based on the play against ranked conference teams (one being in their division), they are still far away from scratching their first conference championship game. 

Inconsistent Secondary 

Georgia State’s secondary never seemed to hit their stride. They performed inconsistently and looked awful sometimes and exceptional other times. More importantly, the secondary cost the Panthers a few wins early in the season. 

In their second conference game at Arkansas State, the secondary yielded big play after big play as the Panthers fell 59-52.   

The Panthers also gave up nearly 600 passing yards as the Red Wolves connected on 75% of their fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter alone. The secondary ranked at the bottom of the nation for most of the season. 

Those guys are still young and will have more growing pains before they become established. However, Georgia State’s secondary can’t afford more early woes in 2021. They play some great teams, including Army, Auburn and North Carolina.

On the bright side, Panthers’ secondary came around in some games, though, including against Appalachian State, holding the Mountaineers to just 17 points. 

They also picked off the Hilltoppers twice en route to their victory in the LendingTree Bowl. 

While there are positives to take away from the secondary, more issues need to be solved headed into next season. 

Overall Grade: B

Even with the Panthers’ struggles against ranked opponents and secondary issues, the Panthers had a solid season. Achieving six wins in a season that saw three games canceled during a pandemic and bowl win is nothing to sneeze at. With new talented recruits incoming for next season, the Panthers should improve in the coming years.