2021 Sunbelt Conference Preview

Despite the impacts of COVID-19, 2020 was a banner year for the Sunbelt Conference. Three Sunbelt teams achieved top 25 rankings, with Coastal Carolina and Louisiana finishing 14 and 15 in the final AP poll. Coastal achieved the highest ranking ever by a Sunbelt team when they reached number 9 after an undefeated regular season (the first in Sunbelt history).

Due to COVID-19 the Sunbelt Championship game was not played. Five Sunbelt teams played in bowl games and performed well, finishing with a 4-1 record. The only blemish was Coastal’s overtime loss to Liberty.

With many of the teams benefitting from super seniors, the Sunbelt looks loaded for 2021. Preseason polls have both Coastal Carolina and Louisiana in the top 25. Appalachian State and Georgia State will field teams capable of making a run at the title. Troy and Arkansas State will be improved. In short, it should be another good one in the Funbelt!

G5 Gurus predictions for the 2021 Sunbelt season are provided below.

Sunbelt East

Appalachian State (1)

What to know:

App State returns 10 starters on what was arguably the strongest defensive unit in the Sunbelt in 2020.   The Apps possess the strongest running back and receiving corps in the Sunbelt.

3 things to watch:

  1. Turnovers and penalties.  App State led the Sunbelt in penalties and was among the leaders in turnovers in 2020.  App has to improve these stats to reclaim their Sunbelt crown.
  2. Quarterback.  Chase Brice had a miserable year at Duke in 2020, completing only 55% of his passes and throwing 15 interceptions against 10 TDs.  Brice has the arm talent and athleticism to be special but has to make better decisions if the Apps expect to challenge. 
  3. Schedule.  App State plays a challenging non-conference schedule with games against AAC foe East Carolina, top 25 Miami, and CUSA favorite Marshall. 

Coastal Carolina (2)

What to know:

Coastal Carolina was the surprise of 2020 football season.  The Chanticleers return 20 starters and the conference player of the year Grayson McCall.  Their season ending #14 ranking in the AP poll was the highest ever by a Sunbelt team. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Running game.   Coastal will have to find someone to fill C.J. Marable’s 19 touchdowns from scrimmage. 
  2. Turnover margin.  Coastal’s +13 turnover margin was the best in the G5.  A dip in turnover margin could spell the difference between a couple wins and losses. 
  3. Close games.   Coastal won two games with last minute scores, beat BYU with a last play goal line stand, and took the lead on App State with only 2 minutes remaining.  Will this trend continue in 2021?

Georgia State (3)

What to know:

Returns a strong core from last year’s Lending Tree Bowl champions.  Cornelius Brown is a dynamic dual threat QB.

3 things to watch:

  1. Brown’s growth.  Cornelius Brown had a solid freshman campaign.  However, he threw an interception in seven of Georgia State’s 10 games.  Better decision making could transform Brown into an even bigger threat in 2021. 
  2. Defense.  The Panthers surrendered over 31 points per game in 2021.  Pass defense was a big issue as they surrendered over 270 yards a game in passing.  The Panthers also lost their top two defensive playmakers.   If the defense improves, the Panthers could surprise a lot of people. 
  3. Close out games.  Three of the Panthers four losses were one possession games, including close losses to two of the Sunbelt’s best in Louisiana and App State. 

Troy (4)

What to know:

Troy has won only 5 games in the last two seasons after winning 10 or more games three seasons in a row.  There will be pressure on coach Chip Lindsey to get the Trojans back to bowl eligibility in 2021.

3 things to watch:

  1. One score games.  The Trojans were 1-4 in one score games in 2020, including a last-minute loss to SBC East Champion Coastal Carolina.  Aside from two blow-out losses to BYU and App State, Troy was in every game in 2020.
  2. QB.  Gunar Watson had four 300 yard passing performances in 2020.  Incoming transfer Missouri Taylor Powell will challenge for playing time.  In either case, the Trojan’s will need more dynamic playmaking from the QB to make a return to a bowl game. 
  3. Continued defensive improvement.  A bright spot for the Trojans in 2020 was their defense. Led by returning linebacker Carlton Martial and seven other starters, the Trojan defense could fuel a bowl run in 2021. 

Georgia Southern (4)

What to know:

A strong offensive line and great depth at running back makes the Southern triple option a threat in any game.   The Eagles were never out of any game in 2020.  Four losses were one score games and they were tied in the fourth quarter with Coastal in their other loss. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Who will replace Shai Werts.  It seems Werts was under center at Georgia Southern for a decade.  Replacing him is a tall order.  Justin Tomlin, who filled in when Werts was hurt in 2020 will battle with Georgia Tech transfer James Graham for the starting role. 
  2. Filling defensive holes.  The Eagles lost a lot of productivity on the defensive side of the ball and will need new players to step up.  This unit was a strength in 2020.  A similar performance in 2021 could push the Eagles further up the SBC East standings. 
  3. Turnovers.  The Eagles were a plus 9 in turnovers in 2020, which isn’t bad.  However, the 17 turnovers committed by the offense was more than the previous two seasons combined.   

Sunbelt West

Louisiana (1)

What to know:

The Rajin Cajuns were a last play field goal away from an undefeated season in 2020.  They finished the season just behind the Chanticleers at #15 in the final AP Poll.  With a strong returning cast, the Rajin Cajuns are ready to take the next step.

3 things to watch:

  1. Running game.  The Cajuns lost two stellar performers in Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas.  Replacing their production will be critical to stay at the top of the SBC. 
  2. Kicking game.  The Cajuns Rotated between Nate Snyder and Kenneth Almendares in 2020.  Finding a consistent, go-to kicker will be important with a challenging 2021 schedule.
  3. Focus.  The Rajin Cajuns have the talent to run the table in 2021.  A tough opener at Texas is winnable.  A mid-season home game against App State looms large, as does a late season trip to Liberty.   If the Cajuns stay focused, 2021 could be a special year.

Arkansas State (2)

What to know:

Arkansas State dropped to 4-7 in 2020, their first losing season in 9 years.  Blake Anderson, their coach for six of those seasons departed to Utah State.  Butch Jones takes the helm as the Red Wolves look to get back to their winning ways. 

3 things to watch:

  1. New coach.  Jones is a well-known name, having previously led Tennessee for five years.  It will be interesting to see if his style meshes well with the returning talent on the Arkansas State roster. 
  2. Defense.  The Red Wolves’ offense was a high scoring unit, but their defense couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain, surrendering 37 points a game.  For the Red Wolves to return to their winning ways, the defense has to improve immediately. 
  3. Running game.  Leader rusher Jamal Jones departed.  Promising freshman Lincoln Pare will need to step up to bolster the running game and take some pressure off the Red Wolves’ passing attack. 

South Alabama (3)

What to know:

Coming off a second-place finish in the SBC West, the Jaguars are looking to take a step forward in 2021 under new coach Kane Wommack.   It will be a tall order as South Alabama has not had a winning season since joining the Sunbelt in 2012.

3 things to watch:

  1. New coach.  Wommack was defensive coordinator for Indiana’s stellar 2020 season.  He brings knowledge of South Alabama, having served as an assistant there in 2016-2017.  Wommack seems to be the right person to put the Jaguars on the winning side of the ledger. 
  2. QB.  Former South Carolina starter, Jake Bentley will take the helm for the Jaguars.  If the offensive line can protect Bentley, he has a strong group of receivers to thrown to. 
  3. Pass rush.  The Jaguars only had 13 sacks in 2020, second worst in the conference.  In the pass-happy Sunbelt, this has to improve. 

Texas State (3)

What to know:

The 2020 Texas State team was like a hard-luck boxer.  While they would lose, the other team knew they were in a game.  3-point losses to SMU, UTSA, and Boston College showed the Bobcat’s grit.  They faded to a 2-10 mark, but there is hope for the upcoming season. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Winning close games.   Six of the Bobcats 10 losses were by 10 points or fewer.  Changing “close loss” to “win” will require cutting down on turnovers and mistakes.
  2. Defense.  The Bobcats surrendered 38 points a game in 2020, one of the worst averages in FBS.   The pash rush was non-existent with only 12 sacks. 
  3. Offense line.  This unit struggled at times in 2020.  Three transfer portal newcomers could provide the help needed to help the Bobcats take the next step. 

Louisiana-Monroe (5)

What to know:

2020 was a season to forget for the Warhawks.  An 0-10 season, which saw their opponents outscore them by an average of 26 points a game.  In fact, outside a 5-point loss to Georgia Southern, ULM was not within 18 points of any opponent.  It will be a tall rebuilding order for new coach Terry Bowden. 

3 things to watch:

  1. New coach and Offensive Coordinator.  Two well-known names, Terry Bowden (head coach) and Rich Rodriguez (Off-coordinator) will take over the helm for ULM.  This was a dumpster fire in 2020, so any improvements would be a welcome sign for ULM fans.
  2. Defense.  The 2020 defensive unit surrendered over 42 points a game.  Simply put, the Warhawks couldn’t stop the run or pass.  Improvement in the defense will be key to allow ULM to be competitive. 
  3. Offensive running game.  ULM, as a team, averaged about 75 yards rushing per game.  The lack of running game made their offense one-dimensional and put too much pressure on their young QBs.     

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