It's a Conference USA vs. Sun Belt matchup in Orlando with a winning season on the line
It was a year of streaks for both Western Kentucky (6-6) and Georgia State (6-5).
After a 1-2 start to the regular season, the Hilltoppers got on a roll, rattling off four consecutive wins and were looking like the class of Conference USA once again. That did not materialize, however, as WKU lost four out of its last five games to close the season, including a 41-17 blowout loss to FIU in the finale.
For the Panthers, a pair of two-game losing streaks bookended their 2017 campaign, but those were sandwiched around two separate three-game winning streaks that catapulted the Panthers to bowl eligibility and a fourth-place finish in the Sun Belt despite having one game (vs. Memphis) cancelled because of schedule disruptions related to Hurricane Irma.
Both teams ended the regular season on sour notes, but will look to rebound to secure a winning 2017 season on Saturday.
AutoNation Cure Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Georgia State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 16 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Georgia State -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Ditch the run
Of course the goal of nearly every offense is to be as balanced as possible, mixing in both the run and the pass. That did not pan out in 2017 for Western Kentucky. After finishing 52nd in the country last season, averaging well over five yards per carry, the Hilltoppers ranked dead last (129th) this season in rushing, averaging a pitiful 2.14 yards per carry and just 66 yards per game on the ground. After repeated failures to begin the season, WKU has nearly ditched that part of the offense — probably why quarterback Mike White is second in the nation in pass attempts this season with 521. Georgia State was middle of the road in 2017 at defending the run, but the Panthers should be just fine in limiting any big rushing plays even with minimal defenders in the box.
2. Money Penny
After catching 71 passes for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns for Georgia State as a true freshman back in 2015, Penny Hart (above, right) played in just two games last year due to injury. The 5-foot-8, 180-pound wide receiver has enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2017, basically matching his totals from two years ago with 71 catches for 1,099 yards and eight scores. Maybe the most impressive part — Hart barely had any help on the outside, allowing defenses to solely focus on stopping him. For reference, GSU’s second-leading receiver this year was running back Glenn Smith, who has 342 yards. For the Panthers' offense to find success Saturday, Hart will need to find the end zone, something he hasn’t done in the last three games.
3. Springboard to year two
Both Shawn Elliot and Mike Sanford were first-year head coaches in 2017 and both would probably tell you the results were a mixed bag. For Sanford, it was always going to be tough living up to his predecessor, Jeff Brohm, who led the Hilltoppers to consecutive Conference USA titles. The passing game put up similar numbers, but the offense was far less dynamic than in previous years because of the severe issues up front on the offensive line. Elliot arguably did more with less this year, leading the Panthers to the conference’s fourth-best passing offense and scoring defense, but GSU struggled mightily in areas as well, including averaging just 20 points per game (118th in the FBS). Each head coach will look to this bowl game as a springboard towards 2018.
Which Western Kentucky team will show up? The one that won four straight during the middle of the season? Or the one that lost four out of the last five games, including the blowout loss to close the regular season. Conversely, we know Georgia State can move the ball up and down the field, but can the Panthers actually put enough points on the scoreboard to keep up with the Hilltoppers' offense? Georgia State is favored here, but look for Mike White and the WKU passing game to be the best group on the field and notch a victory on Saturday.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 27, Georgia State 23
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.