College football has no Cinderella story this postseason quite as unlikely as that of Georgia State.
The Panthers had to win their final four straight just to gain bowl eligibility. But even before running the table in the season’s final third, 2-6 Georgia State had already made history under third-year head coach Trent Miles.
The fledgling program in Atlanta had won two games combined in the previous three years, and had never beaten an FBS opponent before 2015.
A 34-32 win at New Mexico State Week 2 marked Georgia State’s first FBS victory in five years of existence — which was the first of many to come in the 2015 season.
Saturday’s appearance in the inaugural AutoNation Cure Bowl, where the Panthers take on San Jose State, marks the last of those firsts, but the road between Las Cruces and Orlando could very easily have been derailed.
Georgia State’s first month included losses to Charlotte — another college football newbie in just its first FBS season and third season overall — and FCS Liberty.
Another one-win season seemed possible, if not likely, before Georgia State’s first nonconference, FBS win on Oct. 17. The Panthers beat Ball State out of the MAC, 31-19, in a game in which quarterback Nick Arbuckle passed for 412 yards.
In that contest, Georgia State took a step toward reaching its lofty potential. And fittingly, it did so in the same state where Trent Miles proved capable of helping GSU in that process.
When Miles’ hire was announced in December 2012, I was instantly on board with the future of Georgia State football. I covered the Football Championship Subdivision for CBS when Miles was at Indiana State, a program that had been demonstrably the worst in Div. I.
One of the first feature stories I’d written was on Miles’ Sycamores, who had just reached their own first milestone in October 2009 with their first win in nearly three calendar years.
Listening to Miles, I was impressed with his philosophy on rebuilding a program that had been historically downtrodden. He preached patience, eliminating bad attitudes and influences, instilling a sense of pride.
It probably comes off as coach-speak cliches upon retelling, but Miles had a sincerity that translated to the field. Indiana State was a threat in the tough Missouri Valley Conference by 2011, and knocking on the door of the Playoffs by 2012.
In Miles’ last season there, Indiana State beat top-ranked North Dakota State in the Fargodome. As an outside observer, I’d rank this the most impressive win on Miles’ resume — and until Dec. 5 of this year, that is.
After the Ball State win, it was back to the status quo. Georgia State dropped two more to fall to 2-6. But then, on Nov. 14, something unusual started happening.
Georgia State started winning, starting with a blowout of sputtering Texas State. This was when I started tracking the Panthers’ postseason hopes — half-jokingly, I’ll admit.
Georgia State is not eliminated from bowl eligibility
— Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) November 15, 2015
The next week was a two-touchdown defeat of South Alabama, which marked three program firsts: Georgia State’s first win streak as an FBS member, its first home Sun Belt win, and its first home win over an FBS opponent.
Georgia State: Still alive for bowl eligibility
— Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) November 21, 2015
Then a fast start and white-knuckle finish against Troy gave Georgia State its first three-game win streak since 2010, when it beat perennial cellar-dweller Savannah State, and non-scholarship Campbell and Moorhead State.
Georgia State will play for bowl eligibility next week
— Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) November 27, 2015
Reaching a bowl game meant winning at rival and defending Sun Belt Conference champion Georgia Southern. Midnight was about to strike for Cinderella; certainly the Panthers couldn’t go to Statesboro and steal a win from Willie Fritz’s well-oiled machine, just one week after Georgia Southern nearly upset Georgia.
Not only did Georgia State beat Georgia Southern for the first time, the Panthers crushed the Eagles, 34-7. This one easily replaces Indiana State’s 17-14 defeat of North Dakota State a few years ago, sealing Miles as the Sun Belt Coach of the Year.
Safety Tarris Batiste earned national kudos, recognized as the Football Writers Association of America’s Defensive Player of the Week for Week 14.
And, perhaps most importantly, Georgia State set the tone for the future of the program.
I have written before on this very site that Georgia State has a remarkably high ceiling. Getting there from the ground floor would take some creativity, and to that end, GSU is one of the strongest endorsements for satellite camps.
But it’s not just hidden gems from the local recruiting scene that made Georgia State’s historic season happen. Miles has taken on a number of JUCO and D-I transfers. Batiste came from Indiana State, for example, and star quarterback Arbuckle landed in Atlanta from Pierce College in California.
Miles and his staff worked hard to get Georgia State to this point, and Saturday’s Cure Bowl should be just another first with plenty more to come for this growing program.