Don't let last season's 1-11 record fool you. The Georgia State Panthers aren't going to be a cupcake opponent for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team Saturday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
Yes, the fifth-year program's only win last season came against a winless Rhode Island squad. Yes, the defense gave up 470.1 yards and 38.5 points a game. And yes, the offense averaged only 17.4 points a game.
But just as UTC turned things around quickly from a 1-11 record in 2008 to 6-5 the following season, after Russ Huesman took over as coach, Georgia State has a fresh start under new coach Trent Miles.
"They're going to be better this year because there's a newness, new staff, new excitement, new energy -- and you can see that's how they played," Huesman said Tuesday. "They played with a lot of emotion, a lot of excitement; they played hard. They've got good players -- I don't think there's any question about that -- and you can see that they're pretty well coached."
The Panthers also have another advantage: They have more than the Football Championship Subdivision maximum of 63 scholarships now that they've moved up to the Sun Belt Conference in the Bowl Subdivision. Huesman said he wasn't sure of the exact total but guessed GSU has at least 75 scholarship players this season.
Miles' first game as the Panthers' coach was last Friday in the Dome, a 31-21 loss to another Southern Conference school, Samford, in front of an announced crowd of 17,606.
Samford opened the game with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Fabian Truss. The Bulldogs got a 33-yard interception return for a score from All-America safety Jaquiski Tartt; another interception set them up at the GSU 40-yard line; and they also blocked a punt.
Georgia State outgained Samford 463 yards to 298, passing for 391, and averaged 6.1 yards per play to Samford's 4.4.
"I thought they had a lot of talented football players," Samford defensive coordinator and associate head coach Bill D'Ottavio said Tuesday. "Obviously they have a new staff so they're going through a little bit of a transition, but they played real well against us and it was a hard-fought game. I thought they were fairly talented on both sides of the ball and their quarterback [Ronnie Bell] was a young player that was kind of an unknown for them, and he played really well against us."
Bell was 28-for-51 for 391 yards, with three touchdown throws and two interceptions.
Mocs offensive coordinator Jeff Durden saw the Panthers last season when he was at James Madison. The ninth-ranked Dukes got up 28-7 on their home field and held on for a 28-21 win.
"They had good players," Durden said. "Defensively they were solid, and I think they're better across the board now."
Mocs cornerback Chaz Moore said the Panthers look like an FBS team and play like an FBS team.
"They played a tough game against Samford and we play Samford. We know Samford's a good team, so we know Georgia State's got a good team," Moore said. "Samford just make a few more plays than they did. We know we're playing a good [FBS] team."
Huesman said Mocs cornerback Will Johnson (shoulder) has decided not to have surgery and will try to play this season. Johnson went through noncontact drills Tuesday. ... This won't be the first time some Mocs have played in the Dome. Several, including wide receiver Tommy Hudson, quarterback Alejandro Bennifield and linebacker Alex Kirby, played in Georgia high school state championship games there.
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.