Georgia State Panthers
Head Coach: Shawn Elliot, 3rd year (9-15, 10-20 overall)
Conference: Sun Belt
2018 record: 2-10
Returning starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Tennessee’s 2019 season opener will be a welcoming sight—and a change—for Jeremy Pruitt and company.
The last two seasons, the Vols opened up at neutral sites, first against Georgia Tech at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta in 2017 and then again at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte against West Virginia in 2018.
The game against Georgia State should serve as a much needed tune up for SEC play, which is slated to begin in week four against Florida. After the Panthers, the Vols will host BYU and then FCS foe Chattanooga before going to Gainesville.
Here’s a closer look at what to expect to see when Georgia State comes to Neyland Stadium.
Coaching: This will be a familiar sight for Tennessee fans, as Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliot served as interim coach for South Carolina after the sudden retirement of Steve Spurrier back in 2015.
Elliot and the Gamecocks came to Neyland Stadium only three weeks after Spurrier’s departure, but came close to knocking off Butch Jones’ team in a 24-27 loss.
Despite South Carolina’s 3-9 finish that season, Elliot caught the attention of some lower FBS programs with a coaching vacancy. In 2017, he was hired away from Will Muschamp’s staff by Georgia State.
After guiding the Panthers to a 7-5 finish, as well as win over Western Kentucky in the Cure Bowl in his first season, Georgia State fell off in year two under Elliot, finishing with a 2-10 mark.
Elliot will have some experience at his disposal this season as the Panthers will look to improve off of last season’s disappointment.
Offense: On the offensive side of the ball, the Panthers return seven starters from 2018, including quarterback Dan Ellington.
In his junior campaign last season, Ellington started in 11 of Georgia State’s 12 games, sitting out one due to an injury. He threw for 2,119 yards and 12 touchdowns against five interceptions, while leading the team in rushing with 625 and five more scores.
Behind Ellington, the Panthers also return running back Tra Barnett and Seth Page. Barnett rushed for a team second-best 551 yards and 7 touchdowns while Page ran for better than 340 as a true freshman.
In 2018, Georgia State’s offensive line helped lead them to their highest rushing average since joining the FBS level with more than 171 yards per game. However, the Panthers lose four starters off of that line. They will have four players who started in five or more games last season, so that should help.
The receiving corps took a drop off in last season after a productive 2017, but they return more of their receivers form 2018, including two former SEC transfers Christian Owens (South Carolina) and Camrin Knight (Florida).
Defense: Although the Panthers returned an experienced defensive line in 2018, they struggled to stop the run, giving up an average of 250-plus yards on the ground per game. That line returns all but one starter from last season, including defensive end Terry Thomas, who had eight TFL and and 1.5 sacks.
Much like the defensive line in front of them, the linebackers also had a head-scratching 2018 season. The Panthers returned four of their top five linebackers, but the unit surrendered nearly 500 yards per game. In 2019, they’ll have top tacklers Ed Curney (3.5 TFL) and Trajan Stephens-McQueen back.
Going up against what should be an improved and talented Tennessee wide receiving unit is a Georgia State secondary that gave up nearly 240 yards per game through the air. Those numbers were only slightly improved from 2017 (251 yards per game). The Panthers only lost one starter from that group, so they should be more experienced.
Outlook: The Vols struggled last season in a 14-6 win over Charlotte out of Conference USA, and struggled for a half against FCS ETSU, so it’s no guarantee that they will cruise to a season-opening win over Georgia State.
Still, this should be a sure 1-0 start to Jeremy Pruitt’s second season. While the Panthers return experience on both sides of the ball, the Vols will have the edge-and the depth-at every position.
Up Next: Sept 7 vs BYU