The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 17, 2021

Sun Belt Conference Preview

The Sun Belt Conference was the lowest rated FBS league for many years in our preseason PiRate Ratings.  Its best teams slowly left the league for other, more prestigious conferences.  Teams left for the Mountain West and Conference USA.  The league gained teams from the ranks of FCS, including Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina.

The Sun Belt may get the last laugh.  Not only has the league jumped ahead of those two leagues where former members fled, the league has surpassed the Mid-American Conference and the current roster of Independents.  Watch out American Athletic Conference!  The SBC is breathing down your neck for top Group of 5 league.  Of course, by this time next year, who will know what any league not named the Southeastern Conference will look like?

2021 gives the SBC a chance for three teams to finish in the top 25.  Two teams made a host of preseason top 25’s.  How does the league look as a whole?  Here is how the SBC media voted at the league meetings.

2021 SUN BELT CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON COACHES POLL

East Division

T1. Coastal Carolina (6) – 44

T1. Appalachian State (4) – 44

3. Georgia State – 24

4. Georgia Southern – 20

5. Troy – 18 

West Division 

1. Louisiana (9) – 49

2. Arkansas State (1) – 38

3. South Alabama – 27 

4. Texas State – 25

5. UL-Monroe – 11

The East Division is tough from top to bottom, while the West Division should be a runaway win for Louisiana.  Let’s take a brief look at the 10 teams.

Coastal Carolina was the one real bright spot of the 2020 college football season.  The Chanticleers, picked to finish in last place by the SBC media, finished in first, going undefeated in the regular season, defeating undefeated BYU in a nationally-televised game, and making headlines for Coach Jamey Chadwell’s unique hybrid offense.  The season ended with the most exciting bowl game of the year, but CCU fell to Liberty in overtime to finish 11-1.  Chadwell welcomes back almost his entire starting lineup on both sides of the ball.  The team is loaded with players old enough to be second and third year NFL players, and this experience returns to run a system that is as difficult to prepare for in a few days as the system at Army.

One of the handful of underclassmen in the starting lineup is quarterback Grayson McCall.  As a redshirt freshman last year, McCall guided CCU to more than 200 rushing and 200 passing yards per game, while the offense ate up large chunks of the clock.  He completed 68.8% of his passes for an average of 14.5 yards per completion and just 1.2% interceptions.  Those are Heisman Trophy worthy statistics.  But, that’s just half of the story.  Running the triple option, McCall looked like an All-American on the ground as well.  Factoring out QB sacks and kneel downs, McCall averaged close to six yards per rushing attempt.

CCU returns all but Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Tarron Jackson to its defense.  His loss will be felt by a weakened pass rush, but overall, the CCU defense could be a little stronger this year after finishing second in the league in 2020.  

The Chanticleer schedule is set up for CCU to have a chance to run the table again this year.  A home game with Kansas should no longer be a game where CCU has to pull the upset.  The Chants should be heavy favorites.  A road game against Buffalo isn’t going to be as tough as it might have been last year.  Road games against Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will be tough, but CCU has the talent to win them all for the second consecutive season.  The SBC Championship Game could be one for the ages if the top two contenders make it there.

Appalachian State was the king of the league just a couple years ago, but the Mountaineers lost their head coach to a Power 5 program in consecutive years, and the edge slightly came off the overall program last year.  If going 9-3 with a blowout win in a bowl game is considered slightly off, that tells you just how strong this program had been built up.

The Mountaineers are still a force to be reckoned with.  They had a chance to win at CCU last year, but some second half mistakes led to an 11-point loss.  The loss earlier in the year to Marshall was a tough game against a tough team that is really tough to beat on their home turf.  And, losing at home to a Louisiana team that only lost to CCU was not a bad loss.

Appy State returns the majority of its starters, and Coach Shawn Clark welcomes former Clemson quarterback Chase Brice to Boone.  Brice left Clemson for Duke, where he had a nightmare season.  He should bounce back to have a great senior year, as defenses will be forced to concentrate on an excellent power running game, led by Cameron Peoples, who annihilated North Texas in the Myrtle Beach Bowl last year with 300+ yards rushing and five touchdowns.

The Mountaineers led the SBC in scoring defense last year, whie finishing two yards per game out of the lead in total defense.  This year’s stop troops should be even better with one of the best pass defenses in the nation.

The success of this year’s team will come down to back-to-back weeks in October.  Appy State visits Louisiana on October 12 and hosts Coastal Carolina on October 20.  They figure to be underdogs in both games, so this will be a test to see if they can return to their throne.

The remaining three teams in the SBC East are closely matched, and all three could find a path to bowl eligibility this year.  Georgia State has become a program that can be counted on for six or seven wins a year.  Coach Shawn Elliott has been able to recruit talent to Atlanta to play at the old Turner Field site of the Atlanta Braves, and the Panthers are now competitive in the league.  With his entire starting offense returning after averaging 33.3 points per game, Georgia State will be a tough opponent for the three league biggies this year, and they could make road games against North Carolina and Auburn a bit more interesting than the Tar Heels and Tigers expect.  The question about the Panthers is their defense.  They surrendered almost 32 points per game and more than 410 yards per game.

Troy was once the darling of the SBC, but the Trojans have been in the bottom half of the standings in recent years.  Third year coach Chip Lindsey has recruited well, and Troy could be on the upswing again.  However, the East Division is one giant upswing, and the Trojans will be fortunate to win half their games this year after going 5-6 last year.  Like Georgia State, Troy returns its entire starting offense from a unit that struggled at times last year, especially in November.  The Trojan schedule is tough, as Troy has out of conference games with Liberty and South Carolina.

Georgia Southern was once the outlier team in the league and one of a small handful running the spread option.  Today, they are the poor relative of Coastal Carolina, running a more conservative version of CCU’s wide open offense.  The Eagles rushed for more yards per game than anybody in the league last year, but they finished dead last in passing, and the offense overall finished near the bottom of the league in scoring and total yards.  Having the top-rated defense in total yards allowed kept the Eagles competitive, as Georgia Southern finished 8-5 with a New Orleans Bowl win over Louisiana Tech.  The Eagles were competitive  in their five losses, but 2021 looks like a rebuilding year, and the Eagles might not be as competitive this year.  

In the West, Louisiana is the overwhelming favorite to finish in first place by two, three, maybe four games over the field.  The Ragin’ Cajuns did not garner the headlines that CCU received last year, but they finished 10-1 and ended the season ranked #15 in the nation in the polls.  Included in this run of success, UL not only won at Iowa State last year, they basically blew the Cyclones off their home field.  Only a three-point loss to Coastal Carolina marred what could have been a perfect season and maybe a top 10 finish.  How do you top that?  Louisiana may not match their 2020 record this year due to a tougher schedule, but the Ragin’ Cajuns are going to be better than they were in 2020.  And, if you look at how the sharp bettors in Nevada have bet down the opening game at Texas, you get the impression that some big-money winners believe UL can keep this game close and maybe win the game.  

10 starters return to both sides of the ball, and quarterback Levi Lewis is one of them.  Lewis completed 60% of his passes last year for 12.8 yards per completion and 19 touchdowns.  His 7 interceptions were a tad high for an elite passer, but we expect that number to drop by a couple this year.  A fine complimentary running game might take a small step backward this year, as the one positional loss on this side of the ball were the top two running backs that are in NFL camps today.

Not only do 10 starters return to the defense, there is excellent, experienced depth coming back.  Louisiana yielded 22 points and 355 yards per game last year, and the secondary was one of the best in the nation.  Five defensive backs that started most of the games return to the 4-2-5 defense.

UL does not face Coastal Carolina in the regular season, but the Cajuns most likely will see the Chanticleers in the SBC Championship Game.  If they can somehow spoil Steve Sarkisian’s debut in Austin with an upset at Texas, their other tough regular season game is at Liberty in late November.  Should UL win that one and then take out CCU in December, there is a chance that UL could take the automatic New Year’s Six Bowl bid that goes to the top Group of 5 team.  Coach Billy Napier is going to have multiple opportunities to coach at a higher level in 2022.

South Alabama has been described as an outstanding potential Group of 5 power.  The Jaguars have never lived up to that billing, as they have been a bottom feeder for most seasons in this league.  Things might be on the verge of changing in Mobile.  Kane Wommack comes to USA from Indiana, where he had been the Hoosiers’ defensive coordinator.  It isn’t the defense that has us thinking the Jags are about to improve and challenge for bowl eligibility.  It’s the offense that looks to be much improved in 2021.  What happened to transform an attack squad that averaged a paltry 19.9 points per game last year?  USA scored a coup in the transfer portal.  Former South Carolina starting QB Jake Bentley has played out his option and signed as a free agent, and the Jaguar offense should see about a touchdown per game improvement this year.  Combine this with a defense that wasn’t bad last year and should be a bit better this season, and all of a sudden South Alabama looks like the distant number two team in the West Division.  If the Jags can defeat Southern Miss., Bowling Green, and Alcorn State out of the league, there is a path to a 6-6 season.

Arkansas State starts over from scratch after yet another coaching change in Jonesboro.  The school that has seen Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, Bryan Harsin, and Blake Anderson leave for better jobs and decided to choose the Ohio Bobcat option and hire an older reclamation project coach.  Former Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Tennessee coach Butch Jones assumes command after spending some time at Nick Saban’s Coaching Rehabilitation Clinic.

Jones inherits a rebuilding effort in Jonesboro, but he did recruit well, which should help in a couple years.  2021 is going to be a tough one, as the Red Wolves will struggle to score enough points to stay competitive.  It all starts with a foundation, and Jones will try to build up the program one brick at a time (we just had to include this for the Tennessee fans reading this preview).

Texas State went 2-10 last year after going 3-9 the year before, and third year coach Jake Spavital didn’t sign a single high school player in the 2021 class.  He decided to try signing transfer portal players only, and he brought in a dozen.  If you are over the age of 60, you might remember former NFL head coach George Allen went with a lot of 30+ year old veterans over youngsters, and it worked well with the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins.  Will it work for Spavital in San Marcos?  It can’t get much worse for the Bobcats.  It just might allow TSU to win a couple more games this year.

Finally, there is UL-Monroe.  The Warhawks were quite possibly the worst team in college football in 2020, as they went 0-10 and were outscored by an average of 42-16.  The Warhawks were once a Division I-AA power in the Southland Conference, but since becoming a Division 1 program, they have never been a factor in FBS football.  Their one share of a conference title came in 2005, in a year where they finished 5-6.  Enter another old coach looking to reclaim some past success.  Terry Bowden had one good year at Akron before things went totally sour.  Like an old veteran Major League pitcher well past his prime that signs with a last place team to eat some innings, Bowden is basically bringing a name to Monroe, hoping that some of the potential recruits’ fathers will tell their sons about Bowden’s success at Auburn in the 1990s and the Bowden family’s success.  If ULM cannot defeat Neon Deion Sanders’ Jackson State team in September, the Warhawks could wear the collar again in 2021.

Editors’ Note: This preview was written before Coach Bobby Bowden passed away on August 8.  Our heartfelt condolences go out to the Bowden family and the Florida State community.  

Here are the preseason PiRate Ratings for the Sun Belt Conference.

Sunbelt Conference

EAST

PiRate

Mean

Bias

Average
Coastal Carolina109.2106.4109.6108.4
Appalachian St.100.5100.0102.5101.0
Georgia St.97.096.296.396.5
Troy93.193.493.793.4
Georgia Southern91.792.191.291.6

WEST

PiRate

Mean

Bias

Average
Louisiana109.8107.6110.4109.2
South Alabama91.691.590.691.2
Arkansas St.89.891.088.889.9
Texas St.89.486.787.287.8
UL-Monroe76.476.573.975.6
Sun Averages94.894.194.494.5

The PiRate Ratings are not designed to look forward into a season, as they are used only to predict the next game for each team.  Our ratings have built-in adjustments for depth and experience, so even if a team does not play during a particular week, their power rating may change due to extenuating factors not including the adjustment due to schedule strength changes.  Nevertheless, we issue our predicted won-loss records purely for fun–you fine folks love having fun at our expense!

Sun Belt EastConf.Overall
Coastal Carolina8-012-1
Appalachian St.5-38-4
Georgia State4-46-6
Troy3-55-7
Georgia Southern3-54-8


Sun Belt WestConf.Overall
Louisiana8-011-2*
Texas St.3-55-7
South Alabama3-56-6
Arkansas St.3-54-8
UL-Monroe0-81-11
* Louisiana picked to win SBC Championship Game

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