The Georgia State Panthers can clinch the first eight-win season in the program's nine-year history if they can secure a win in the TaxAct Camellia Bowl against the Ball State Cardinals on Christmas day. For the Cardinals — who endured quite the rocky road to get to the postseason — a win would be quite a welcome gift, a positive end to an extremely tumultuous season.
Ball State opened the 2021 campaign with a 10-point home win over Western Illinois but followed with three straight losses — by 31, 33, and 10 points — en route to three consecutive wins. The Cardinals finished with just two wins in their final five games, bookending a pair of mid-November MAC losses — including a one-point loss at Northern Illinois — with wins over Akron and Buffalo in their first and last games of November.
The Panthers, likewise, were victorious to finish off the regular season, albeit with not one, not two, but three wins in as many weeks. Georgia State won just one of its first five games — with all five losses by double digits and three of the five by at least 29 points — but finished with a pair of three-game winning streaks sandwiched around a four-point Week 10 loss at Louisiana. The defense stepped up in a major way for the Panthers in the back half of the season, limiting Georgia State's final seven opponents to just over 20 points per game after the Panthers' first five nearly doubled that, scoring an average of 38 points per game.
The Camellia Bowl marks the second and third consecutive trip to a bowl game for the Cardinals and Panthers, respectively. These two teams have only met twice before, each winning on the other's home field. The Panthers came out with a 12-point win in 2015 in Muncie before the Cardinals bounced back in Atlanta the following year.
Whoever pulls out the win will be able to lay claim to its program's first-ever bowl winning streak. The Cardinals had lost each of their first seven bowl appearances before winning last year's Arizona Bowl against San Jose State en route to finishing the season ranked 23rd in the final AP Top 25, the first (and only) time in the program's 47-year history that the Cardinals have been ranked in the final end-of-season poll. The Panthers, meanwhile, have alternated wins and losses in their four bowls since the 2015 season, most recently winning last year's LendingTree Bowl over Western Kentucky.
TaxAct Camellia Bowl: Ball State vs. Georgia State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 25 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Alabama)
Spread: Georgia State -4.5
When Ball State Has The Ball
The Cardinals' offense hasn't exactly been prolific in 2021, as Ball State has been held under 20 points five times — all losses — while only eclipsing 30 points twice against FBS competition. The lone remaining loss came in Week 11, the 30-29 loss at Northern Illinois. The Cardinals have managed to possess the ball for just over 27 minutes per game, the second-lowest mark in the MAC and among the 10 lowest in the FBS.
The Cardinals average 335.6 total yards per game in 2021, 200.5 of which have come through the air and the remainder on the ground. Drew Plitt has used his experience to guide the offense and limit negative plays, as the Cardinals have yielded just 3.75 TFLs per game, the 12th-fewest allowed per game in the FBS this season. While Plitt may not be looking to make plays downfield too often, as his 10.2 yards per completion is sixth lowest in the FBS, there have been three primary targets when he's found the end zone: Yo'Heinz Tyler (six receiving TDs), Justin Hall (five), and Jayshon Jackson (four). And as would be expected with Plitt's tendency to look for shorter completions, running back Justin Hall paces the team with 5.5 receptions per game — in addition to his six rushing TDs, tied with Carson Steele for the team lead — while Steele is the team's top rusher with 829 yards on the ground and Jackson (56.9 yards receiving per game) and Hall (55.7) are virtually tied even for the high mark on the receiving side.
Where the Cardinals have thrived, though, is in their discipline in a couple of key areas: limiting penalties and limiting turnovers. Ball State enters the postseason among the top 20 teams nationally in fewest penalty yards per game (41.6) and fewest turnovers (10), both second-best in the MAC behind Eastern Michigan and Toledo, respectively. They also haven't made it into the red zone much this season — just 38 total red-zone trips in their 12 games — but when they've gotten inside the opponent's 20-yard line, they've scored on all but five of those drives, signaling an ability to make something happen when they build and sustain a drive.
Those factors will certainly be keys to watch as Georgia State's defense has done quite well to limit opponents' red-zone success and force turnovers. The Panthers have allowed touchdowns on just over half of their opponents' 39 red-zone trips, preventing points entirely on nearly one-fourth of such drives. And the unit has forced 20 turnovers in the regular season, recovering 10 fumbles — tied for second in the Sun Belt and tied for 15th in the FBS — and picking off 10 passes. The Panthers are riding quite a bit of momentum as of late, though, as nearly half of those 20 (eight total: three fumbles, five interceptions) have come during Georgia State's three-game winning streak to close the regular season.
When Georgia State Has The Ball
Working in tandem with their opportunistic defense, the Panthers have won the turnover battle in six of their last seven games. Georgia State has turned the ball over just 14 times — slightly more than once per game — which comes into the postseason as the third-lowest total in the Sun Belt.
Second-year starter Cornelious Brown IV was benched going into Week 3 after completing just 24 of 46 passes for 197 yards and throwing a pair of interceptions in the first two weeks, his lone touchdown coming on the ground in the two losses. Dual-threat Furman transfer Darren Grainger has been solid in his place, going 7-3 since taking over as the starter. He's been a bit shaky in recent weeks, however, tallying four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) in the last five games and completing slightly more than half his passes. His play in the bowl will be interesting to monitor, however, after offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brad Glenn was hired as the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator at Virginia Tech. Glenn has led the Georgia State offense to school record-setting performances in his three seasons — earning a Broyles Award nomination for the nation's top assistant coach in 2019 — followed by a 2020 season in which six Panthers collected all-conference honors on offense and seven more in 2021.
The running game has been the real strength under Glenn's guidance this season, averaging nearly 225 yards per game in 2021 to finish the regular season second in the Sun Belt — narrowly behind the 228.8 posted by Coastal Carolina — and the eighth-best mark in the FBS. Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams led the way, combining for more than 60 percent of the team's rushing yardage and 18 rushing scores. Williams led the Sun Belt and enters the postseason fourth in the FBS with 6.75 yards per carry and Gregg not far behind at 5.11.
For the Cardinals' defense, the mindset is simple: force tough throws and take advantage of any opportunities to force turnovers. Ball State enters with 20 total takeaways, 15 by way of interceptions, both of which are second-best in the MAC. Linebacker Jaylin Thomas — one of six other players alongside Plitt who were on the roster the last time these two teams met — tied for the conference lead with four of those interceptions, grabbing one in each of the last two regular-season games to surge up the leaderboard.
Both of these teams have been among the nation's best in turnover margin, proving their defenses' ability to make plays while the offenses limit their mistakes. But Georgia State's dynamic and versatile playmakers on offense will likely be the difference as the Panthers have averaged more than 35 points in the six wins across their last seven games.
Prediction: Georgia State 30, Ball State 20
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.