It’s almost time for another season of Sun Belt football. Last year provided us with Co-Champions (Louisiana and Coastal Carolina) and saw the Chanticleers finish the year with a top-15 ranking. Our staff gives their thoughts on what to expect in 2021 and who will take the Sun Belt.
Who is your surprise team in the Sun Belt this year?
Joe Londergan: I really think Georgia State is right on the edge of being dangerous. Shawn Elliott had that team looking tough at the end of last season winning four out of their last five. Must have been one hell of a team meeting following that 51-point loss to Coastal Carolina on Halloween. If they can have that attitude at the start of this season as well as the end, they’ll be interesting to watch.
Zeke Palermo: ULM won’t take home any silverware, but they also won’t repeat last year’s abysmal 0-10 season. Don’t underestimate the power of a coaching change. Terry Bowden is a strong lead man with a history of turning around poor programs; his 39-28 record in inaugural seasons says so. With an experienced O-line plus two key transfers in QB Rhett Rodriguez and LB Traveion Webster, you’ve got a team that’ll outperform expectations. Not a title game contender, but a respectable team floating around .500.
Brian Stone: I think two teams have the possibility to take that next step. One is Georgia State as mentioned above by Joe, but I think South Alabama has made steady improvement over the past few seasons. They seem to have their quarterback in Utah transfer Jake Bentley and a talented wide receiving corps with Jalen Wayne and Jalen Tolbert. I don’t think they will compete for the West title necessarily, but I could see them give some opposing teams headaches, especially with their weapons on offense.
Matt Miguez: There’s a few teams that could breakout and make a splash in the FunBelt this season. Georgia State has come a long way with Quad Brown and Shawn Elliott, ULM could make some noise with Terry Bowden and RichRod, South AL has improved a ton with Kane Wommack and Jake Bentley, and Arkansas State looks ready to join the top 3 with Layne Hatcher, Dahu Green, and Butch Jones. With the big dogs of Coastal, App, and Louisiana plus these four groups, this season in the Sun Belt might be one of the best ever.
Who is your breakout player?
Joe Londergan: For me, I feel good about what Chase Brice brings to Appalachian State. Lindy’s already named him the conference newcomer of the year and he proved himself to be a competent QB1 at both Clemson and Duke, though it’s something of a monumental task to stand out in Clemson’s QB Room from what I hear. With an extremely experienced receiver group, plus a running back like Camerun Peoples to lean on, I think Brice will end his college career on a high note.
Zeke Palermo: Georgia State’s Cornelius Brown IV. He provides incredible versatility on the ground and with his arm, and could break a few Sun Belt single season records in 2021. Brown takes care of the ball (10 interceptions thrown in 2020 despite leading the Sun Belt in attempts), avoids sacks (sacked just 12 times despite leading the Sun Belt in downs played), and adds value on the ground (seven rushing touchdowns in 2020).
Brian Stone: I’m going to double down on my South Alabama pick and take Jalen Tolbert. He has some impressive measurables (6’3, 195 lbs) and turned in a 1,000 yard season last year with a few different quarterbacks at the helm for the Jaguars. I think if USA straightens out the QB spot, he could be in for a fantastic season.
Matt Miguez: This is going to sound biased, but I’m going with Chris Smith from Louisiana. Smith has had two solid years as an alternate back/kick returner, getting over 300 yards in each of his first two seasons on the ground to go along with two kick return touchdowns in 2020. Smith has also added more muscle to his frame this offseason, so look for him to take the majority of snaps beside Levi Lewis and truly have a breakout season for the Vermilion and White.
Who is your pick to win Defensive and Offensive Player of the Year?
Joe Londergan: This is a bit of a copout answer, but I think it’s going to be a very tight race between Grayson McCall and Levi Lewis for offensive player of the year in the Sun Belt. Both have great offensive lines in front of them, plenty of weapons, and impressive dual threat capabilities. I’m excited to see these inevitably face off in the championship game. On defense, I think you have to consider CCU corner D’Jordan Strong based on the fantastic season that he had last year with 23 solo tackles, five interceptions, six passes defended, and a forced fumble.
Zeke Palermo: The aforementioned Cornelius Brown IV from Georgia State takes home OPOY honors. Defensively, it becomes less clear. Troy’s Carlton Martial is the chalk pick, but not one I take comfortably. In 2020 he led the country in tackles, but tackles are a fickle stat that often reflect opportunity and scheme rather than skill. Martial is an elite linebacker, but I can’t see him taking home the DPOY.
Brian Stone: Offensively, I am going to go with Louisiana’s Levi Lewis. I thought the Cajuns would defeat the Chanticleers in last season’s canceled championship game, and I truly think Louisiana will be out to avenge last season’s missed opportunity. I like Lewis to have a big year and he gets the national stage in week one against Texas to make his mark. Defensively, my pick is App State’s defensive back Shaun Jolly. Jolly was overshadowed by NFL draftee Shemar Jean-Charles last season, but I think Jolly will be a lockdown defender for the Mountaineers this season.
Matt Miguez: In terms of OPOY, I’d have to narrow it to three choices: Grayson McCall, Levi Lewis, and Cam Peoples. Any of these three players are set to have yet another solid season in leading their teams to potential spots in the Sun Belt title game. Defensively, I think it’s a no-brainer to go with Carlton Martial from Troy. Martial led the nation in tackles last year and will be sure to go over 100 again. Other honorable mentions are D’Jordan Strong from Coastal and Bralen Trahan from Louisiana.
Team most likely to disappoint?
Joe Londergan: I’m going to say Troy. I know Trojan fans really want Chip Lindsey to get that team competing for a title again, but with how competitive the East is this season, I just don’t see it happening.
Zeke Palermo: App State. Their offense is an immense preseason question mark and one I just can’t overlook. Their O-line is returning just two starters, one of which is moving from guard to center, and their shiny new toy from the transfer portal Chase Brice gave the ball away 22 times last season for Duke. Elite programs like Clemson—where Brice began his collegiate career—can give the illusion of competency in quarterbacks thanks to NFL-ready offensive lines and weapons. Those are opportunities Brice was not given by Duke, and will not be given by App State. The Mountaineers won’t flounder, but they won’t be gunning for CCU as anticipated.
Brian Stone: I’m going to say Georgia Southern. I’m not sure what the outside viewing public is expecting from the Eagles team this season, but I am expecting this team to take a major step back from the previous two seasons as it tries to determine who the quarterback of the future will be for this team after losing several key pieces at important positions. They are off to a blazing hot start thus far.
Matt Miguez: My pick is Coastal Carolina, and not because I think they’re gonna be a bad team. It’s just coming off of the season they had (11-0, top 15, in the conversation for a NY6), it’s going to be very difficult to live up to lofty expectations. Coastal should be a 9+ win team this season, but 9-3 in Myrtle Beach will be a sizable disappointment this season.
Your sleeper picks to win East and West are?
Joe Londergan: Let me preface this by saying that I would be shocked if anyone besides Coastal Carolina and Louisiana made the title game. That being said, I think App State in the East and Arkansas State in the West are both very solid. For the Redwolves, they do need a lot from the transfers that they just brought in on defense, particularly the front seven.
Zeke Palermo: Coastal Carolina and Louisiana are going to win their divisions; no ifs, ands or buts. In the hypothetical that they don’t (which again, would be one of the greatest shockers in CFB history), it’s Georgia State and Arkansas State. The Panthers are an up-and-comer that in the next few years could be in the AP Poll conversation. The Red Wolves hired Butch Jones; Jones has won a ring within two years at his last two Group of 5 jobs.
Brian Stone: I will go with a couple of “sleepers” and say Georgia State and South Alabama. If the Panthers could string together consistent performances I think they would really be a dangerous team, even in a loaded East division. South Alabama is my pick for reasons I highlighted above. Who knows, maybe they pull a Coastal Carolina from last season. Nobody thought the Chanticleers would jump from 5 wins in 2019 to 11 wins in 2020.
Matt Miguez: My sleepers to win their divisions are South AL and Georgia State, like Brian stated. These two teams are just one missing piece away from really exploding into the conversation. Who knows, those pieces might already be in Mobile and Atlanta.
Most likely Power Five win for the Conference?
Joe Londergan: Nobody knows how much longer the Big 12 will be considered a “Power Five” conference, but it seems extremely likely that Coastal Carolina will wipe the floor with Kansas on September 10. The Chants beat the Jayhawks by two scores last year and the margin could be even bigger this year.
Zeke Palermo: The Kansas Jayhawks travel to the bays of the Atlantic to take on Coastal Carolina on September 10th. CCU will wipe the Jayhawks. The Chanticleers won by two scores in the same matchup last season, it’ll be much of the same here.
Brian Stone: I can’t disagree with what was stated above. I would like to mention that a very experienced Louisiana team will take on Texas in week one and already upset a Big 12 school (Iowa State) in the opener last year. The Longhorns are also breaking in a new quarterback and head coach, so it isn’t the craziest idea that they upset UT.
Matt Miguez: Coastal beating Kansas seems like a no-doubter, but it’s incredibly difficult to beat a team three times in a row. Louisiana vs Texas is a great bet, because you have a reloaded and dangerous Cajuns team walking into a stadium full of question marks in Austin. Week 1 is going to be another crazy ride in 2021.
O/U 2 teams will experience a coaching change?
Joe Londergan: I’m going to take the under on that one. We saw a handful of teams change their head coach within the last 18 months or so already (South Alabama, Arkansas State, ULM) and I think Jake Spavital has until 2022 to get it together before the Bobcats hit the panic button. Then, when you look at the East, I’d wager pretty much everybody is safe over there unless Georgia Southern just completely fails to get going.
Zeke Palermo: Under. The only guy on the hot seat is Texas State’s Jake Spavital. Every other coach is either too new (i.e. ULM’s Terry Bowden), in the process of building a winner (Georgia State’s Shawn Elliott) or is already winning (CCU’s Jamey Caldwell).
Brian Stone: Under, the only two coaches that could potentially be on the hot seat are Jake Spavital (Texas State) and Chad Lunsford (Georgia Southern). I think Lunsford has built up enough goodwill over the past couple of seasons to survive anything except a truly disastrous 1 or 2 win campaign in 2021.
Matt Miguez: I’m the oddball here, but I’m going over. There’s going to be at least one firing and then either Billy Napier or Jamey Chadwell will move on to bigger programs with a solid season in 2021. It’ll be hard to believe that there won’t be two new coaches next season.
Who will win the Sun Belt?
Joe Londergan: Coastal Carolina is very good, no doubt about it...But I simply can’t go against Louisiana with the amount of talent they have coming back on that offense. They’re extremely balanced as a team. Plus, Levi Lewis with that offensive line? The Cajuns will have plenty to rage about in 2021.
Zeke Palermo: It really is a coin flip between CCU and UL. Vegas says the Cajuns, but only by a slim margin; and I agree. Louisiana has the best O-line in the Sun Belt and their D-line is in the same conversation. Not to be too cliché, but games are truly won in the trenches.
Brian Stone: I will take Louisiana as well. The only meeting between them and Coastal Carolina last season was a field goal difference, and I felt they were peaking around the time the title game was supposed to happen last year, while Coastal ended their season with an upset loss to Liberty. I think that momentum carries over to this season as Louisiana plays angry and wins their first Sun Belt title since 2013.
Matt Miguez: Of course I’m picking the Cajuns too. Billy Napier returns 20 of his 22 starters from 2020 and has a new, yet experienced coaching staff. Add that to a high powered offense and a back breaking defense, Louisiana will finally get their hands on that conference championship trophy.