The Sun Belt kicks off conference play on Saturday when two potential contenders — the Arkansas State Red Wolves (1-1) and Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (2-0) — meet at Brooks Stadium.
The golf courses aren't the only reason to visit Myrtle Beach these days after the Chanticleers' hot start this season that included an "upset" of Kansas in Week 1, followed by a 22-point win over Campbell on Sept. 26. Two games are a very small sample size, but the early returns show that Coastal Carolina has improved on both sides of the football, particularly on offense led by redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall, who has posted a 213.5 QB rating through two weeks. After allowing 30.5 ppg in 2019, the defense also looks improved (22.0 ppg) and held both Kansas and Campbell to under 200 passing yards.
That CCU pass defense will be tested on Saturday against an Arkansas State team coming off of an upset victory in Week 2 over Kansas State in which the Red Wolves posted 330 yards through the air and five passing touchdowns. Helps to put up that kind of yardage with a star receiver in Jonathan Adams Jr., who notched three touchdowns, including the game-winner against the Wildcats with 38 seconds remaining.
Saturday will mark the fourth meeting between these two teams, with Arkansas State winning each of the three contests by an average of 22 points. Safe to say this year's version will be a much closer affair.
Arkansas State at Coastal Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Arkansas State -3.5
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
As of Tuesday morning, no update yet as to who will start at quarterback between Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher, who have been rotated in and out of the lineup in each of the first two weeks this season. Bonner has gotten the nod to start in both contests, but it was notable that Hatcher was on the field for the Red Wolves during the final drive against Kansas State that culminated in a game-winning touchdown pass to Adams. The expectation is that we will see both players yet again on Saturday, and the two-quarterback system has worked to an extent, as the Red Wolves are averaging 314.5 yards per game through the air.
Whichever quarterback is under center Saturday should get a boost by the return of starting running back Marcel Murray, who has missed the first two games due to injury and was expected back last week against Tulsa had the game not been canceled. The junior running back has topped 800 rushing yards in each of his first two years on campus and should bolster a ground attack that is already averaging over four yards a carry on the season.
When Arkansas State takes to the air, they have a bonafide star in Adams, who was named the Maxwell Award Player of the Week after his three-touchdown performance against Kansas State in Week 2.
When Coastal Carolina Has the Ball
What Arkansas State is doing this year, rotating Bonner and Hatcher at quarterback, is what Coastal Carolina did a year ago. Not so much the case in 2020, as the Chanticleers have found their quarterback for the foreseeable future in McCall. Listed third on the team's initial depth chart, McCall got the nod against Kansas in the opener and put up over 200 total yards and five touchdowns in the upset victory. The 6-foot-3 dual-threat was exceptional again vs. Campbell last Friday with 273 passing yards on just 11 completions and two more trips to the end-zone. It's a great matchup for McCall this week against an Arkansas State pass defense that is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 67 percent of their passes through two games and gave up six touchdowns through the air.
McCall isn't the only star in the Coastal Carolina backfield, either, as he shares the spotlight with senior running back CJ Marable. It's been tough sledding early on for Marable, averaging under four yards a carry, and it won't get easier against the Arkansas State run defense that held Kansas State to just 91 yards on 39 carries (2.3 ypc).
The Chanticleers don't throw it often, but when they do, it's likely in the direction of juniors Isaiah Likely and Jaivon Heiligh, who have four receiving touchdowns between them, and both are averaging north of 23 yards per catch.
Arkansas State has given Coastal Carolina the business in their three meetings since the Chanticleers joined the Sun Belt, but this CCU team looks like they are on the verge of breaking through in 2020 to reach their first bowl game since arriving at the FBS level. McCall is the primary reason for that, as the redshirt freshman quarterback can get it done with both his arm and legs, but this Coastal Carolina team looks much-improved in a number of facets on both sides of the ball. This has all the makings of a tightly contested matchup that could prove critical in the Sun Belt race this season. Give the slightest lean towards Arkansas State and their high-flying offense, but don't feel great about it.
Prediction: Arkansas State 31, Coastal Carolina 30
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
(Marcel Murray photo courtesy of Arkansas State Athletics)