The Georgia State Panthers were one of the most up-and-down college football programs in the country this season.

As in they had one giant up and one equally large down.

The Panthers started the season with four straight wins and won six of their first seven games. For a time, they looked like the class of the Sun Belt Conference.

“I just always assume they are going to play their best, so we need to take the approach of playing sound football and not take anything for granted.” — Utah State coach Blake Anderson on Georgia State

They followed up that hot start with a brutal second half of the season, however, and lost five consecutive games, four of which were blowout losses by at least three scores.

That alone makes the Panthers a fairly confusing postseason opponent for the Utah State Aggies.

Is Georgia State the 6-1 team it was earlier in the year, or the 0-5 team it was to close the season? Which version of the Panthers will face the Aggies in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Saturday?

If only that was the only question, though.

Since the NCAA transfer portal opened, Georgia State has hemorrhaged talent.

Per 247 Sports, 13 Panthers have entered the transfer portal this month, including the team’s star running back Marcus Carroll, who rushed for 1,350 and 13 touchdowns this season. He has since committed to Missouri.

The Panthers have also lost star wide receiver Robert Lewis (877 yards receiving and seven touchdowns) to Auburn, starting right tackle Montavious Cunningham to Virginia Tech, cornerback Bryquice Brown to Boston College.

All told, Georgia State is down three running backs, four players in the secondary, two linebackers, two wide receivers and two offensive linemen since Nov. 30.

By way of comparison, the Aggies have done quite well in the portal this month. The only player on the team’s two-deep roster to have left the program through Dec. 19 is safety Deven Dye.

The remaining nine Aggies who’ve entered the portal were all reserves who hardly saw any playing time this season.

Utah State will be without a few starters/regular contributors in the bowl game — quarterback Cooper Legas, linebacker Anthony Switzer, wide receiver Micah Davis, defensive back Avante Dickerson and tight end Broc Lane will all miss the game with various injuries — but all told, the Aggies are feeling pretty good entering the game.

“I would say, I mean, we’re in no worse shape than anybody else at this point in the year,” Utah State coach Blake Anderson said. “And considering we haven’t had, you know, half of our two-deep in the portal, which we’ve seen across the country at a lot of places, I’d say just in terms of bodies available and health of the team we’re in a pretty good place going into this game.”

All of which begs the question, what can Utah State expect from Georgia State?

How do they prepare for a team with so many unknowns?

According to Anderson, Utah State can’t get caught up in Georgia State’s personnel losses, nor in the Panthers’ late-season swoon.

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“We’ve obviously looked at the roster,” he said. “But I think if you get too caught up in that, instead of just kind of playing the game with a very balanced and thoughtful approach to playing good sound football, if you start thinking about who is there, who is not, who’d they lose, you can always be surprised when I guy steps in and has a huge day or is bigger and better than what they lost.

“I just always assume they are going to play their best, so we need to take the approach of playing sound football and not take anything for granted.”

Aggie defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka believes a team without key starters is dangerous. As he sees it, he was a backup once who was afforded an opportunity to play and he made the most of it. Why not expect the same from Georgia State’s players?

“I’ve been in that situation of being a backup. And I remember once I got my opportunity, how hungry I was to make the most of it,” Motu’apuaka said. “A lot of these guys are probably going to have a chip on their shoulder and will be trying to prove that just because they haven’t got that many reps (this season) they’ve been preparing for that moment. So it’s a big thing for us to go out there and play hard.”

So what do the Aggies expect from Georgia State?

First, a stout run defense with effective pass rushers.

“Shawn (Elliott) does a great job being physical, his teams play physical football,” Anderson said. “Regardless of guys in the portal ... it will be very difficult to run the ball. We have to protect (the quarterback) and throw and catch well.”

He continued, “They have the ability to be dynamic off the edge. We can’t just assume that we can’t run the ball. We have to take the approach like we have all year. It may be tough, early, but with the way they’re built, how they think and how they prepare their team, we have to be patient and consistently continue to try to run ball.”

Offensively, Georgia State will rely heavily on quarterback Darren Grainger, a redshirt senior described as being similar to now-former Boise State quarterback Taylen Green.

“We know the quarterback is a really good player,” Anderson said. “... We have a tremendous amount of respect for the quarterback and what he’s capable of doing, throwing and running the ball.

“They’re very balanced. Their RPO (run-pass option) game puts you in very stressful situations. Shawn’s offense and defense have always been physical up front, they’ve run the ball well. Even with guys being in the portal, I just always assumed that the next guy is gonna step in and play his best game.”

The Aggies will rely on third-string quarterback Levi Williams again to lead their offense, and though Williams’ did the majority of his damage with his legs in Utah State’s regular-season finale against New Mexico, Anderson hopes to have a more balanced attack against Georgia State.

“Clearly, he (Williams) is a great runner, and he does add a component to the game that other guys don’t,” Anderson said. “But we want to be balanced. ... With the exception of missing Micah Davis, we’re healthy outside and other guys have stepped in and done a really good job too.

“So I would like to think that we can be very balanced, still play fast, and make them defend the whole field and not be one dimensional in any phase of what we’re trying to do offensively.”

To a man, the Aggies insist they are focused on the bowl game. Taking it as seriously as they can.

“I’m just focused on this game right now and what I can do to help my team win,” said senior wide receiver Terrell Vaughn.

“I’ve seen a lot of fire,” added Motu’apuaka. “All the coaches that have been here, they’ve emphasized that this is the last game of the season, but it is also the first game of next season. I can see that a lot. I see a lot of the boys, especially on the defensive side, putting in the extra work.”

And now all that’s left for Utah State is to play the game, no matter who suits up Saturday in Boise for Georgia State.

Georgia State Darren Grainger drops back to look for an open receiver during a game on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Atlanta. Grainger has the full attention of Utah State coach Blake Anderson ahead of this week’s bowl game in Boise. | Jason Allen, Associated Press