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Upstart Panthers set to take on No. 10 Tide

POSTED: November 17, 2010 6:09 p.m.
KENT D. Johnson /The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia State quarterback Kelton Hill carries the ball in overtime against North Carolina Central on Oct. 16 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — No. 10 Alabama is one of college football’s most storied programs, and the defending national champion. And Georgia State’s football team?

Well, they have one now.

The Crimson Tide (8-2) hosts former ‘Bama coach Bill Curry’s first-year program tonight in a game that is literally a historic mismatch.

For Alabama, it’s the game before The Game. Eight days later, the Tide will face No. 2 Auburn aiming to knock its in-state rival out of national title contention.

Realistically, the primary goals for this one are probably along these lines: avoid injuries and get backup quarterback A.J. McCarron and other youngsters some playing time. Coach Nick Saban and Alabama’s players insist they’re not approaching it that way.

“We don’t want to not look at Georgia State and let them have the advantage because if we’re so worried about Auburn, Georgia State will have a good chance to come in and upset us,” safety Robert Lester said.

That’s doubtful, of course.

The Panthers (6-4) have enjoyed success in their debut season but it’s come against teams like Shorter, Campbell and Savannah State. Now, the independent Championship Subdivision team faces one of the biggest names in college athletics.

It’s one that Curry is intimately familiar with since he was the Tide’s coach from 1987-89, winning a Southeastern Conference title in his final season. If starting a program from scratch was his biggest challenge this year, facing the defending Bowl Subdivision national champions is No. 2.

“The bottom line is when you have a chance to do something like this with your football team you do not walk away from it out of fear of somebody whipping you badly or anything else that might happen,” Curry said. “What you do is you take advantage of the privilege of going to play in one of the great football venues ever in intercollegiate athletics.”

Curry does have firsthand experience with a huge upset of Alabama. He led his 1981 Georgia Tech team, en route to a 1-10 season, to a 24-21 upset of the fourth-ranked Tide in 1981.

His players have heard plenty about that this week.

“There are two differences. The Georgia Tech team that I took over there was not as good as this Georgia State team, and the Alabama team was better than this Alabama team this year,” Curry said. “Now maybe it was a fluky win, because we were not very good, but these things happen. I told them the story because I did not want them to think I was just pulling this out of thin air and that we had actually had this experience.”

Then again, Alabama had as many first-team Associated Press All-Americans (six) last season as Georgia State does wins — ever.

The Tide can match its second-longest home winning streak of 20 games, then try to top it against Auburn.

If the game goes as expected, it could give young players like McCarron some extended playing time. McCarron got a much-replayed chewing-out and backside slap from Saban after a questionable decision last week against Mississippi State.

Saban later apologized on his weekly radio show for the gesture.

Starter Greg McElroy’s most important performance of the week will come Saturday — as usual. He is interviewing for a Rhodes scholarship, and expects to find out later in the day if he is one of two recipients from a region that includes Alabama, Tennessee and Florida.

He’ll likely break more of a sweat over that than Georgia State.

“I’m not going to have the weekend off,” McElroy said. “I’ll probably have the most intellectually grueling experience of my entire life, and I’m looking forward to that. I’m just glad it doesn’t alter my game-day approach in any way, shape or form. I was a little nervous about that, but it’s not the case.”



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