The Sun Belt Conference takes center stage Thursday for this late October matchup between South Alabama and Georgia State. Both programs are neck-in-neck in the conference’s standings with 2-1 records, and both are coming off of wins.
This will be just the Panthers’ second home game at Georgia State Field, their new venue that is a reconfiguration of the Atlanta Braves’ Turner Field, since Aug. 31. Hurricane Irma forced Georgia State (3-3, 2-1 Sun Belt) and Memphis to scrap their Sept. 30 contest, thus taking away a home game for the Panthers. Georgia State returned home last week and fell to Troy 34-10.
After going 1-4 in September, South Alabama (3-4, 2-1) has fared much better in October. The Jaguars have beaten Louisiana Tech and Troy this month and will look to end the month with a road win at Georgia State. South Alabama has won four of six against Georgia State since these two teams first met in 2010, including last year’s meeting in Mobile, 13-10.
South Alabama at Georgia State
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: South Alabama -2
Three Things to Watch
1. South Alabama running back Xavier Johnson
With his 33-yard carry early against Louisiana-Monroe, Johnson became South Alabama’s all-time leading rusher. He’ll look to further distance himself from the pack Thursday night.
Johnson enters this game with a 2,673 rushing yards in his career, including 448 and four touchdown this season. He had 99 yards and a score on 11 carries against the Warhawks. His best game thus far came against Idaho on Sept. 23 when he broke out for 155 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
He’ll have his hands full against a Georgia State defense that ranks in the top 50 (48th) in the FBS against the run, allowing 144 rushing yards per game. Last year, Johnson had 83 yards on 18 carries in the 13-10 win over the Jaguars.
2. Georgia State quarterback Conner Manning
Manning began his collegiate career at Utah in 2014, but transferred a year later. The Utes’ loss has been the Panthers’ gain. Manning finished with 2,684 passing yards and 16 touchdowns in his first year in Atlanta in 2016. His 13 interceptions, however, were tied for the second most in the Sun Belt.
So far this season, Manning has seven touchdowns but he also has five thrown five interceptions. Despite his propensity for turnovers, the talent is there. Manning battered Louisiana-Monroe’s secondary for 446 yards and four touchdowns earlier this year, and he leads the conference with a 66.5 percent completion rate and is fourth at 252.7 passing yards per game.
3. South Alabama safety Jeremy Reaves
Reaves has pretty much been wherever the football has for the Jaguars’ defense this year. Throughout his four years in Mobile, he has established himself as one of the best at his position, and he’s put together an impressive collection of stats for his senior season.
Reaves, who was named the Sun Belt Conference’s co-defensive Player of the Week after recording an interception, a fumble recovery and posting eight tackles against Louisiana-Monroe, could make for a challenging night for Georgia State’s Manning.
All told, Reaves has recorded 51 tackles, a sack, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries through seven games. He’s also forced two fumbles and deflected six passes.
It’s no secret Georgia State has struggled mightily this season. Losing 56-0 to powerhouse Penn State is understandable, but pulling out a 27-21 win against Charlotte isn’t. With talents like quarterback Conner Manning and wide receiver Penny Hart (587 receiving yards, six TDs), the Panthers should be more consistent, s they showed in their 47-37 win against Louisiana-Monroe last week.
South Alabama has come together in October, and a recent 19-8 victory over Troy has added to its momentum. Jeremy Reaves is a monster in the secondary, and running back Xavier Johnson has been the key cog for the Jaguars’ offense.
South Alabama should cap a perfect October with a road win Thursday night in Atlanta.
Prediction: South Alabama 31, Georgia State 28
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
(Top photo courtesy of @JR1ERA)