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LendingTree Bowl Prediction and Preview: WKU vs. Georgia State

LendingTree Bowl Prediction and Preview: WKU vs. Georgia State

LendingTree Bowl Prediction and Preview: WKU vs. Georgia State

Most teams won’t get the traditional three- or four-week break between the end of the regular season and their bowl game in 2020. However, the WKU Hilltoppers and Georgia State Panthers — who will meet at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, for the LendingTree Bowl on Saturday — were among the lucky few.

WKU last played on Dec. 6, when the Hilltoppers beat Charlotte 37-19. The win was the third in a row for WKU, which improved to 5-6 overall and 4-3 in Conference USA play. The Hilltoppers have reached a bowl game in each of head coach Tyson Helton’s two seasons but are in danger of posting a losing record for the third time in four years.

Georgia State beat Georgia Southern 30-24 way back on Nov. 28, improving to 5-4 overall and 4-4 in Sun Belt action in the process. It was a second straight win for the Panthers following a 31-14 victory over South Alabama in Mobile. Head coach Shawn Elliott has led Georgia State to three bowls in four years at the helm (three of the four bowl games in school history), and could secure his third winning record with a victory over WKU.

LendingTree Bowl: WKU (5-6) vs. Georgia State (5-4)

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Ladd-Peebles Stadium (Mobile, Ala.)

TV: ESPN

Spread: Georgia State -3.5

When WKU Has the Ball

The Hilltoppers have scored just 18.8 points per game, which ranks 115th out of 127 FBS teams nationally, but they finished the regular season on an upward trend. After scoring no more than 24 points in any of its first nine games, WKU scored 38 against FIU and followed with 37 against Charlotte. Careful observers will note WKU scored three defensive touchdowns across those games, but the Hilltoppers set season highs with 436 total yards and an average of 6.81 yards per play against the 49ers. Prior to the regular-season finale, WKU hadn’t surpassed 326 total yards or 5.49 yards per snap in any contest. Overall, the unit ranks 120th in total offense (290.9 ypg) and 119th in yards per play (4.58).

Quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome has completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 1,423 yards with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions. Pigrome has done a great job taking care of the ball in the passing game, and also is a gifted runner, having gained 328 yards with a team-leading three touchdowns on the ground. Nevertheless, he has fumbled seven times this season, fortunately losing only two of them. Pigrome is averaging just 5.4 yards per pass attempt, and combined with Kevaris Thomas (369 passing yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs), WKU quarterbacks rank No. 123 nationally with an average of 5.3 yards per pass attempt. Thomas briefly wrestled the starting job away from Pigrome, but he has not played since Oct. 24 due to injury.

The receiving corps has been limited by injuries and transfers this season. Xavier Lane leads the Hilltoppers with 376 receiving yards on 34 receptions, including one touchdown, but he missed the game against Charlotte. Mitchell Tinsley leads the unit with 42 catches and four touchdowns and ranks second with 367 receiving yards but has averaged only 8.74 yards per reception. Tight end Joshua Simon has chipped in with 29 receptions, 286 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Gaej Walker ran for 1,208 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 but has managed just 614 yards and two scores in 11 games this season. Walker’s yads per carry has dropped from 5.01 to 4.55 as well.

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When Georgia State Has the Ball

Georgia State quarterback Cornelious (Quad) Brown IV has completed 59.1 percent of his passes for 2,046 yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions — three of them coming in the Panthers’ most recent trip to Mobile. Brown has thrown for 300 yards three times, including in each of his last two starts, and has tossed three touchdown passes in a trio of games as well. But Brown has struggled against good defenses, having thrown for a combined 182 yards in losses to Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina. Brown leads the Panthers with seven rushing touchdowns, and ranks third on the team with 261 yards on the ground, and his athleticism also helps him avoid pressure: Georgia State has allowed 11 sacks this season, an average of 1.22 per game that ranks No. 16 nationally.

Brown has built a rapport with receiver Sam Pinckney in his first season as a starter. Pinckney leads the Panthers with 44 receptions, 753 yards and six touchdowns this season and has surpassed 100 yards four times, including each of the last two games. He set a career high with 10 receptions against Georgia Southern, one week after posting a career-best 176 yards against South Alabama. Cornelius McCoy missed three games midseason but has returned with two 100-yard games in four appearances since, including 111 yards and a touchdown on five catches last time out. McCoy has caught 26 passes for 359 yards and three scores overall. Tight end Roger Carter is one of the most productive at his position in the Sun Belt, having caught 21 passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns.

The Panthers are also balanced. Destin Coates leads the squad with 652 rushing yards on 143 attempts and has scored six times. Coates reached the century mark in four of his first five games this year but has been limited to 116 yards on the ground combined over the last three contests. Tucker Gregg has seen his workload increase over that time, and boosted by a 142-yard performance against Arkansas State when Coates was unavailable, he has run for 441 yards and six touchdowns.

Final Analysis

The Panthers have had more success scoring points this season and rank among the top 40 nationally with 32.7 per game entering the bowl game — but Georgia State also has struggled to keep opposing offenses in check and ranks No. 91 on the FBS leaderboard in scoring defense (32.9 ppg).

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WKU (24.2) ranks more than 50 spots higher. The Hilltoppers also boast arguably the best pro prospect in the game — and one of the top defenders in any Power 5 conference — in defensive lineman DeAngelo Malone. Malone ranked third in Conference USA with 6.0 sacks during the regular season and ranks second in the conference with 11.0 tackles for a loss. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior, who hails from Georgia State’s own backyard in Atlanta, now has 25 career sacks and 42.5 TFLs to his credit with the Hilltoppers.

Both WKU and Georgia State have similar talent profiles and should be well-rested. Each team also features one solid unit, and one not-so-strong one, though both the Hilltoppers and Panthers enter with the momentum of multiple wins. Expect a close game, but for Georgia State to score just enough to pick up the victory in Mobile.

Prediction: Georgia State 27, WKU 24

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— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and football research director of CFB Winning Edge. Follow him on Twitter @CFBWinningEdge.

(Gaej Walker photo by Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics)