By: Tony Thomas As chaotic as 2020 was, Sun Belt Conference football turned in a solid performance, going 59-54 for the season (.522 winning percentage), tops in the Group of 5. And, the SBC is loaded with talent again as they move toward the start of a more normal 2021 season.
A Look Back at Sun Belt Conference Football in 2020
Three victories over Power 5 teams.
Louisiana 31 – Iowa State 14
The Louisiana Ragin Cajuns got the season rolling by going into Ames, Iowa, and earning a victory over Iowa State. After a scoreless first quarter and down 7-0 early in the 2nd quarter, the Ragin Cajuns’ Chris Smith ran a kickoff back 95 yards for a touchdown to tie the game and set the tone for the rest of the game.
Arkansas State 35 – Kansas State 31
The Redwolves threw five TD passes from three different quarterbacks, three of those TD passes going to WR Jonathan Adams, who caught eight passes for 98 yards. K-State was held scoreless in the 3rd quarter.
Coastal Carolina 38 – Kansas 23
I know it begs the question: is Kansas really a Power 5 team in football? Yes, they are, but only on the Big 12 membership roster and spirit. CCU QB Grayson McCall accounted for five touchdowns, three passing, and 2 rushing, while the Chanticleers defense forced three Jayhawk turnovers.
Team Category Rankings
According to cfbstats.com, SBC teams ranked in the Top Ten nationally in several categories in 2020:
#1 Georgia Southern (18)
#6 Louisiana (16)
#7 Coastal Carolina (16)
#8 Appalachian State (15)
#7 Georgia State (35)
#10 Coastal Carolina (34)
#6 Louisiana (170 yards/game)
#9 Appalachian State (178 yards/game)
#5 Georgia Southern (267 yards/game)
#6 Appalachian State (264 yards/game)
3rd Down Conversions
#4 Coastal Carolina (52%)
#5 Appalachian State (51%)
In other categories, Arkansas State registered 44 plays of over 30 yards, good enough for #3 in the nation; Troy was tied for 1st with four defensive touchdowns; Louisiana tied for 3rd in the FBS with 16 INTs.
The Sun Belt Conference sent five teams to bowl games in 2020, going 4-1:
Myrtle Beach Bowl: Appalachian State 56 – North Texas 28
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Georgia Southern 38 – La. Tech 3
FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl: Liberty 37 – Coastal Carolina 34 (OT)
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: Louisiana 31 – UTSA 24
Lending Tree Bowl: Georgia State 39 – WKU 21
Top 25 Rankings
Two SBC teams finished nationally ranked in the AP Top 25 final poll:
#14 Coastal Carolina
2020 Sunbelt Conference All-Americans and NFL Draft
Three Sun Belt players earned All-American honors and were selected in the NFL Draft in 2020:
DE Tarron Jackson, Coastal Carolina, All-American, 6th round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles.
CB Shemar Jean-Charles, Appalachian State, All-American, 5th round pick by the Green Bay Packers.
OL Ryan Neuzil, Appalachian State, All-American.
RB Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana, 6th round pick, San Francisco 49ers.
Plenty of Talented Players Headed into 2021
According to Athlon Sports College Football Preview Magazine, vol. 27/2021, All 10 Sun Belt teams combined return 168 starters in 2021, and there will be no shortage of talented Sun Belt quarterbacks in 2021, with the conference returning five experienced starters at the position:
Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina: Sunbelt Conference Player of the Year; 2488 yards, 26 TDs, 3 INTs; 569 yards rushing and seven TDs.
Cornelious Brown IV, Georgia State: 2278 yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs; 301 yards rushing, seven TDs.
Levi Lewis, Louisiana, 2274 yards, 19 TDs, 7 INTs; 335 yards rushing, 5 TDs.
Gunnar Watson, 2141 yards, 16 TDs, 7 INTs.
Layne Hatcher, 2058 yards, 19 TDs, 2 INTs.
When you throw in Jake Bentley at South Alabama, a former SEC starter at South Carolina, Chase Brice, formerly of Clemson and Duke, and Rhett Rodriguez at UL-Monroe, formerly of Arizona, you have some talented arms there.
In the rushing department, RB Cameron Peoples of Appalachian State returns after piling up 1124 yards and 12 TDs on the ground in 2020.
At South Alabama, Bentley will throw to WR Jalen Tolbert, who caught 64 balls for 1085 yards and 8 TDs last year. McCall will have his favorite target back in WR Jaivon Heiligh, who caught 65 passes for 998 yards and 10 TDs in 2020.
On the defensive side of the ball, a ton of production returns:
Carlton Martial, Troy: 113 tackles in 2020.
Nick Mobley, South Alabama: 94 tackles in 2020.
C.J. Brewer, Coastal Carolina: 6.5 sacks in 2020
Jeffrey Gunter, Coastal Carolina: 6.5 sacks in 2020.
Derrick Canteen, Georgia Southern: 6 INTs in 2020.
D’Jordan Strong, Coastal Carolina: 5 INTs in 2020.
Sun Belt Conference Football has Succesful Head Coaches with Name Recognition
Butch Jones, Arkansas State: 1st year with the Red Wolves, taking over for Blake Anderson, who has moved on to take the head coaching job at Utah State. He has a 138-84 overall record with stops at Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Tennessee, plus three years as an analyst on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.
In Jones’s eleven seasons as a head coach, he has turned in eight winning seasons. And, his teams have finished ranked in the final AP Poll four times.
Shawn Clark, Appalachian State: This will be Clark’s second full-year with the Mountaineers after going 10-3 in 2020.
Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina: He is the reigning National Coach of the Year after going 11-1 last season.
Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern: 27-18 in four seasons, and went 8-5 last year.
Billy Napier, Louisiana: 28-11 in three seasons (.718 winning pct), and 21-4 over the last two years. Led the Ragin Cajuns to a 10-1 record in 2020.
Terry Bowden, ULM: 82-69-1 in 13 seasons as an FBS Head Coach at Auburn and Akron. He also coached in Division III, Division II, and at the FCS level. Bowden went undefeated with Auburn in 1993, but the team was on NCAA probation which prevented them from playing for a national championship. His record on the Plains was 47-17-1 in six seasons, and his Auburn teams finished ranked in the final AP Poll 5 out of his 6 years, including two Top Ten finishes.
And, when you add in OC’s (and former Head Coaches) like Major Applewhite at South Alabama and Rich Rodriquez at ULM, the Sun Belt is going to be fun to watch.
Notable Sun Belt Conference Football Games in 2021
Louisiana @ Texas, September 4: It’s the debut of Steve Sarkisian as the head man of the Longhorns.
Texas State @ Baylor, September 4: a matchup of teams that combined for four wins last season.
ULM @ Kentucky, September 4: The Warhawks are coming off a 0-10 season and will face a Kentucky ground game led by RB Chris Rodriguez (785 rushing yards, 11 TDs).
Appalachian State @ Miami, September 11: The Mountaineers have a history of beating Power 5 teams on the road: yes that means you Michigan, as well as North Carolina and South Carolina in 2019.
Georgia State @ North Carolina, September 11: The Panthers travel to Chapel Hill to face a potential Heisman contender in UNC quarterback Sam Howell.
Georgia Southern @ Arkansas, September 18: The Eagles face a veteran defense on the road in Fayetteville. The Hogs return nine starters on that side of the ball in 2021, including LB Grant Morgan and LB Bumper Pool who combined for 212 tackles.
Appalachian State @ Louisiana, October 12: The Ragin Cajuns picked off two Zac Thomas passes in a 24-21 win last year.
Coastal Carolina @ Appalachian State, October 20: QB Grayson McCall accounted for three touchdowns in a 34-23 win in 2020.
Louisiana @ Arkansas State, October 21: Levi Lewis passed for a touchdown and ran for a touchdown in the Ragin Cajuns 27-20 win over the Red Wolves a year ago.
Louisiana @ Liberty, November 20: The Ragin Cajuns will be tested as they travel to face Flames Head Coach Hugh Freeze and his QB Malik Willis, who accounted for over 3200 yards and 34 total TDs.
All told, the Sun Belt schedule for 2021 has 10 games against Power 5 opponents.