A year later, no one should be surprised to know how vividly coach Shawn Elliott remembers Georgia State’s 2019 season opener in Neyland Stadium. Football teams don’t make history every Saturday.
The Panthers’ program was just 10 years old when it upended 25-point favorite UT on its home turf last August. The 38-30 upset rocked Tennessee football to its core and raised Georgia State football to new heights.
Easily overlooked in a pro sports town the size of Atlanta, Georgia State surged from the shadows on the last Saturday in August.
“Someone actually had a screen put on an automobile and was driving around Atlanta with the game playing on the screen,” Elliott told the News Sentinel. “We were the talk of the town.
“That game did a lot for our football team. It helped Georgia State become recognized.”
As we edge closer to another football season, the game offers a lesson to both underdogs and favorites. You can’t be sure how a game will unfold, especially when that game is a season opener.
Unlike most upsets of that magnitude, there were no bizarre bounces of the ball that turned the game Georgia State’s way. The Panthers were the better team that afternoon. Elliott likely was the least surprised of anyone how they performed.
“We were very focused for that game,” he said. “Every day, we talked about Tennessee’s tradition and their fan base.
“We felt as though we knew all the ins and outs of that team. And it showed. We went in there knowing there were some things we could do.”
A former offensive line coach, Elliott particularly liked what he saw at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. UT’s offensive line was questionable entering last season, and the Vols also had an all-new defensive front.
“I thought we could present problems for their defense with schemes that might cause problems for them lining up,” he said.
His optimism wasn’t unfounded. UT’s defense often seemed off-balance, and with senior quarterback Dan Ellington confidently showing the way, the Panthers capitalized.
Georgia State moved on from Tennessee to other challenges, but Elliott noticed how Tennessee turned around its season after the opening loss and a 2-5 start to the season. UT ended the season with a six-game winning streak and an 8-5 record.
“I thought it was fantastic to see Tennessee do the things it did later in the season,” he said. “It’s a tribute to Coach (Jeremy) Pruitt and his staff. It’s hard to get a team locked in to finish the way they did.”
Georgia State ended up 7-6. Ellington’s knee injury was a major factor in the drop-off. He kept playing but not at top speed.
“We were 6-2 when Dan tore his ACL,” Elliott said. “I thought then we were a really good team. He was such a great leader, he continued to play on that ACL. And it wasn’t a partial tear. He tore it.”
Finding Ellington’s replacement might be Georgia State’s biggest challenge this season. Much of the depth chart is stocked with experienced players. Elliott said the Panthers would return nine starters on both offense and defense.
Ellington is still a part of the team. He’s a coach now – not a graduate assistant but a full-fledged member of Georgia State’s coaching staff.
How many times have you heard of a college player go from player to coach that fast?
“He’s got such a great personality,” Elliott said. “Our players lean on him. He’s already paid off in recruiting. He got his first recruiting commitment from his home state (Mississippi). He had a big smile about that.”
You could have seen the same smile last August in Neyland Stadium.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.