The Georgia State Panthers might be a team that gets a lot of people in trouble during the bowl season. Some bowl handicaps are more about “what you see is what you get”. Others have a lot more below the surface than you can really see from a cursory look at the game. The Autonation Cure Bowl is one of those games. The aforementioned Panthers, picked by most to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference, won six games and will play the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The Hilltoppers aren’t what they were under Jeff Brohm and are only favored by five points at DSI Sportsbook and across the market.
To some, that number will seem light. To some, the Panthers will look like the far more motivated team, but those people will likely forget that Georgia State played in this bowl game in 2015 in just its third year as an FBS member. Motivation is a fair question to ask about WKU, though. The Hilltoppers are in a bowl for the fourth straight season and fifth time in the last six years. Those destinations included the Bahamas, Miami, and Boca Raton. This one is Orlando, which can be fun, but the Hilltoppers played Memphis and South Florida over the last two years. A mid-level Sun Belt team isn’t going to create much excitement.
Georgia State would have gone 6-6 had the game against Memphis not been postponed, but it still would have been enough for a bowl berth for first-year head coach Shawn Elliott. The Panthers don’t do anything particularly well. They averaged just 5.4 yards per play and couldn’t run the football with just 3.2 yards per carry. They do have one of the conference’s best players in 5-foot-8 sophomore sparkplug Penny Hart, who caught 73 passes for 1,094 yards and eight touchdowns. Conner Manning completed 63.7 percent of his throws with a 13/7 TD/INT ratio. He took care of the football, but aside from Hart, he didn’t have a ton of success with his other receivers. Glenn Smith was the leading rusher, but he only had 3.5 yards per carry. This is a Georgia State team that only managed 19.9 points per game last season and 5.3 yards per play, but this season’s group has 19.7 points per game, 5.4 yards per play, a negative turnover margin, and a lot of good fortune in close games.
Georgia State’s defense was actually far better last season. Last year, the Panthers only allowed 4.9 yards per play. They gave up over 200 yards per game on the ground, but held the opposition to a 54.4 percent completion percentage. This season, teams completed nearly 63 percent of their passes and rushed for 4.4 yards per carry, which was actually higher than last season’s average. Per most power ratings, Georgia State is going to be the worst FBS team in the field of 78. You won’t find many teams outgained by 0.4 yards per play and outscored by nearly six points per game in a bowl without a ridiculously fortunate turnover margin. Georgia State doesn’t even have that. This is a potential landmine for those that get too cute with the bowl season.
Motivation is the biggest question for Western Kentucky here, but it shouldn’t be a question for senior quarterback Mike White. White, whose numbers did sag off without Jeff Brohm and without two NFL-caliber receivers in Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, still completed 65.6 percent of his throws with a 24/7 TD/INT ratio. The Hilltoppers fell off dramatically on offense, but White still played well. WKU went from 7.6 yards per play to just 5.3 yards per play. Taylor and Norris combined for 174 catches, over 3,000 yards, and 31 touchdowns. The Hilltoppers only managed 5.4 yards per play and the running game managed a paltry 2.2 yards per carry. Last year’s group had 5.4 yards per pop. So, Western Kentucky has fallen off in a very, very big way. White still has some scouts to impress and so does top WR Nacarius Fant, who caught 67 passes while dealing with some injuries. Mike Sanford Jr. and Junior Adams have a lot of work to do with the quarterback in waiting and another top receiver leaving.
The WKU defense also dropped off, but not nearly as much as the offense. One hand feeds the other. A great offense helps the defense. A great defense helps the offense. When the offense goes from exceptional to pedestrian, the defense should probably suffer more than the Hilltoppers defense did. The Hilltoppers allowed 5.2 yards per play last season and that number rose to 5.5 yards per play this season. WKU allowed 1.5 more yards per carry, but improved against the pass behind defensive coordinator Clayton White, who coached up the safeties at NC State. This is a hard WKU team to peg. The Hilltoppers have a big talent edge here, even with the season-long statistics in the tank relative to last year. They have the better quarterback. They have the better defense. Do they have the motivation? Is finishing 7-6 instead of 6-7 enough to get by? Does the team feed off of Mike White? Does the team feed off of a senior-laden defense? If this was a regular season spread of -5, it would be a no-brainer. Bowl games are a different animal.
College Football Free Pick: Western Kentucky -5
I have to lean with the talent here. Georgia State has a really motivational head coach in Shawn Elliott, but the Panthers lost to Tennessee State before beating Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Georgia Southern, and Texas State. None of those teams are outside of the bottom 30 in power ratings. Western Kentucky didn’t beat many good teams either, with wins over Eastern Kentucky, Ball State, UTEP, Charlotte, Old Dominion, and Middle Tennessee State. The Hilltoppers were just 3-8-1 ATS, so they weren’t trustworthy. The Panthers weren’t great either. Still, talent wins out here, as long as talent comes to play.