We've reached the point in the 2020 college football season where you're nearly as likely to find a Sun Belt game kicking off on a weeknight as on Saturday. Thursday, the Georgia State Panthers and Arkansas State Red Wolves take their turns on the primetime national television stage in Jonesboro.
Georgia State enters 1-1 overall and 0-1 in league play. The Panthers took No. 19 Louisiana to overtime in their season-opener way back on Sept. 19 but fell 34-31. Following a canceled matchup with Charlotte, Georgia State picked up its first victory in impressive fashion with a 49-29 win over East Carolina Oct. 3.
Arkansas State has also dealt with canceled games but has managed to post a 2-2 record overall and a 0-1 mark in conference action. The Red Wolves made waves nationally with a 35-31 victory over Kansas State on Sept. 12 but were forced to wait three weeks to play again before suffering a 52-23 upset loss at the hands of Coastal Carolina. A more complete roster and a 50-27 victory over Central Arkansas provided optimism heading into the short week.
Georgia State at Arkansas State
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Arkansas State -4.5
When Georgia State Has the Ball
The Panthers entered 2020 with an experienced roster overall but with question marks at two very important spots: quarterback and running back. Through two games, Cornelious Brown IV and Destin Coates have largely answered. Brown has completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 434 yards (on 6.5 yards per attempt) and four touchdowns. He has also run for 90 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. Brown hasn't been perfect — he has been intercepted three times, one of which was returned for a touchdown — and his statistics aren't extraordinary, but the redshirt freshman has impressed the coaching staff enough that his top competition for the job this fall, Vanderbilt transfer Jamil Muhammad, was moved to outside linebacker in September.
Coates leads the Sun Belt with an average of 131.5 rushing yards per game, and he ranks second in the conference with three scores on the ground. The junior has also contributed in the passing game with four receptions for 21 yards. However, Brown's favorite target has been Sam Pinckney, who leads the Panthers with 11 receptions, 155 yards, and two touchdowns. Cornelius McCoy (9 receptions, 74 yards) and Terrance Dixon (6 receptions, 50 yards) are also mainstay wideouts, though tight end Roger Carter (2 receptions, 53 yards, 1 touchdown) and freshman Jamari Thrash (3 receptions, 32 yards, 1 touchdown) found the end zone first.
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
Georgia State didn't know whether it had a starting quarterback entering the fall. Arkansas State knew it had two in Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher. Bonner returned to the top of the depth chart in 2020 after suffering a season-ending thumb injury last season. In four starts, he has completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 741 yards and eight touchdowns with three interceptions. Hatcher, who stepped in and won Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors in 2019, has completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 564 yards and six touchdowns (including the game-winner against K-State) with just one interception in four games while splitting snaps.
Both signal-callers are likely to play Thursday, and both have the benefit of a deep and talented receiving corps. Jonathan Adams Jr. leads the conference and ranks 10th nationally with 26 receptions. Adams also leads the Sun Belt with five touchdowns, which is tied for fourth on the FBS leaderboard. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound pro prospect ranks third in the league with 90.5 receiving yards per game — just ahead of teammate Dahu Green, who has recorded 247 yards and three touchdowns on 16 catches in three appearances this year. Brandon Bowling has also been on the receiving end of three touchdown passes, having caught 14 overall for 183 yards. Texas A&M transfer and kick returner Roshauud Paul has chipped in with eight receptions, 128 yards and a touchdown.
Starting running back Marcel Murray has been limited to 63 yards on 10 carries by a leg injury but is probable to play Thursday. Jamal Jones leads the Red Wolves with 212 rushing yards on 45 carries, and freshman Lincoln Pare has chipped in with 157 yards on 20 rushing attempts — an impressive 7.85 yards per carry. Isaiah Azubuike and Ryan Graham have combined for 88 rushing yards on 22. Each has scored once.
Both teams have exciting playmakers on offense, and both have been uneven defensively. Georgia State showed improvement against East Carolina by holding the Pirates to 286 total yards, including just 50 on the ground (and limiting ECU to 1.9 yards per carry), while forcing three turnovers. But Louisiana was able to move the ball easily, so it's difficult to tell how much the experienced Panthers have improved since 2019, when the unit surrendered 36.2 points, 217.6 rushing yards, and 455.5 total yards or offense per game — all of which ranked 112th or worse nationally.
Likewise, the Arkansas State defense has been unable to produce a pair of quality defensive performances back-to-back. In losses, the Red Wolves have allowed 219.5 rushing yards and 6.35 yards per play. In wins, A-State has held its opponents to 84.5 yards on the ground and 5.38 yards per snap. Combined, the Red Wolves rank last in the Sun Belt in total defense (456.5 yards per game) and scoring defense (36.8 points per game).
But on the bright side, Arkansas State has some of the best defensive players in the league. Forrest Merrill is a load in the middle of the defensive line and is a legitimate NFL Draft prospect. Linebacker Justin Rice, a grad transfer from Fresno State, is the reigning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Week after recording 14 tackles, 4.0 tackles for a loss and 3.0 sacks against UCA. The defense, of which only 10 players have been available for all four games this year, is also inching back to full strength.
A fully healthy and available Arkansas State defense should be able to compete with the Panthers. And the Red Wolves offense, one of the best in the Sun Belt, is a dangerous matchup for the Georgia State defenses on even its best day.
Prediction: Arkansas State 37, Georgia State 27
(Marcel Murray photo courtesy of Arkansas State Athletics)