College football's midweek schedule returns on Wednesday night, as Louisiana hosts Coastal Carolina in an intriguing Sun Belt matchup. With both teams off to 3-0 starts and already picking up big wins within conference play, this showcase on Wednesday will be an important matchup for positioning within the conference and an opportunity to showcase two programs on the rise on the national stage.
Coastal Carolina opened its season by beating Kansas for the second year in a row and followed that victory with wins over Campbell (43-21) and Arkansas State (52-23). This program has never finished with more than five victories since joining the FBS ranks in 2017. However, head coach Jamey Chadwell’'s group appears poised to easily exceed that goal this season, as the team is likely to be favored in most of its games the rest of the way. Wednesday night's clash against Louisiana is a good measuring stick for Coastal Carolina after this program lost to the Ragin' Cajuns 48-7 in 2019. So far, the Chanticleers appear to be much-improved from last season. Wednesday night's game will provide better insight.
Louisiana is coming off the program's best season, after head coach Billy Napier guided the team to an 11-3 finish in 2019. The Ragin' Cajuns have won back-to-back Sun Belt West Division titles and are 14-4 in conference play over the last three years. The biggest remaining hurdle for Napier is pretty simple: Beat Appalachian State and win the Sun Belt. The 2020 version of Napier's program seems on pace to do so, as Louisiana opened the year with a road win at Iowa State and knocked off Georgia State and Georgia Southern to start Sun Belt play. At 3-0 and with a win over one of the favorites to win the Big 12, Napier has the Ragin' Cajuns squarely in the mix to rank as one of the top Group of 5 teams in 2020.
This will be the third meeting between Coastal Carolina and Louisiana. The Chanticleers won in 2018 (30-28), while the Ragin' Cajuns won 48-7 last fall.
Coastal Carolina at Louisiana
Kickoff: Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana - 7
When Coastal Carolina Has the Ball
Coastal Carolina's offense finished seventh in the Sun Belt in scoring last season but heads into Wednesday night's game atop the conference. The Chanticleers average 44.3 points a game and 6.9 yards per snap, and it's largely due to the emergence of quarterback Grayson McCall. The North Carolina native played in two games in 2019 and was believed to be third on the depth chart coming out of spring practice with Bryce Carpenter and Fred Payton established at the top. However, McCall unseated two experienced options and opened 2020 as the No. 1 quarterback. Through three games, McCall has been nearly flawless. He's connected on 66.7 percent of his passes for 728 yards and nine touchdowns and added 139 yards and two scores on the ground. McCall is also averaging 11.6 yards per attempt and has just one interception in 63 passes. After passing for 133 yards in the win over Kansas, McCall has steadily improved his production to 273 passing yards against Campbell and 322 versus Arkansas State. In other words, the redshirt freshman seems to be getting more comfortable with each snap and his skill set is a good fit for Chadwell's offense.
While McCall leads the Sun Belt in total offense (289.0 ypg), he's not a one-man show. The Chanticleers feature an offensive line with three seniors, and this unit has allowed just one sack through three contests. CJ Marable (190 rushing yards) is one of the Sun Belt's top running backs, and there's depth in the form of Shemari Jones and Reese White. Receiver Jaivon Heiligh (12 catches) has been the go-to receiver, but tight end Isaiah Likely is averaging a healthy 30.7 yards per reception over seven grabs. Kameron Brown and Sam Denmark have combined for 12 catches so far, giving McCall four proven and talented weapons in the passing game.
Louisiana's defense showed marked improvement last season and finished 2019 ranked No. 1 in the Sun Belt in fewest points allowed per game (19.7). And under new play-caller Patrick Toney, this unit has picked up where it left off last season. The Ragin' Cajuns are holding teams to 5.1 yards per play and 21 points a contest. However, Louisiana has been a little vulnerable to run so far (191.0 rushing yards allowed per game) and ranks near the bottom of the conference in sacks (three). This unit has experienced some absences through COVID and injuries, but the gap in between games from playing Georgia Southern on Sept. 26 to Wednesday could allow some players to return.
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Louisiana's offense only managed 272 yards (4.86 per snap) in the opener against Iowa State, but this unit seems to be finding its rhythm after the last two games. Napier's group averaged 6.83 yards per play in the overtime win over Georgia State, followed by a 7.6 mark against Georgia Southern. Coastal Carolina can counter with a defense that's holding teams to 5.2 yards per play so far in 2020, but this group was torched (7.73 a snap) by the Ragin' Cajuns last fall.
In order for Coastal Carolina to win, coordinator Chad Staggs has to find a way to slow down Louisiana's ground attack. The Ragin' Cajuns boast one of the top offensive lines among Group of 5 teams and have cleared the way for rushers to average 5.1 yards per snap. Elijah Mitchell missed the win over Georgia Southern but leads the team with 210 rushing yards. Trey Ragas (143) isn't far behind though, and Chris Smith (105) will see plenty of touches. This trio of backs will test a Coastal Carolina defense that ranks second in the Sun Belt in rush defense after three contests.
Steady and efficient is the best way to describe quarterback Levi Lewis. The senior connected on 64.3 percent of his throws last season and has connected on 57.8 percent through three games in 2020. Lewis connected on the biggest offensive play of Louisiana's win over Iowa State and has thrown for more than 278 yards in back-to-back contests. In last year's game, Lewis torched the Chanticleers for 296 yards and three touchdowns. The senior had some turnover in the receiving corps this offseason, but Peter LeBlanc (12 catches), Kyren Lacy (six), and Dontae Fleming (five) have emerged as key weapons. Stopping the pass was a question mark for Coastal Carolina coming into 2020, but Staggs, group held their first two opponents under 200 passing yards. Helping the secondary has been a strong pass rush, which is anchored by linebacker Silas Kelly (three) and linemen Tarron Jackson (two), Jeffrey Gunter (three), and C.J. Brewer (3.5).
Louisiana has lived on the edge with close victories after beating Iowa State in its season opener. And with the national spotlight available on Wednesday, a good showing by Napier's team certainly wouldn't hurt when it comes to poll placement for next week. On the other sideline, Coastal Carolina is off to a fast start and clearly seems to be improved under Chadwell. However, just how much has this team closed the gap to Louisiana? An x-factor to watch will be what happens on third down. The Chanticleers excel at converting them, while the Ragin' Cajuns are near the Sun Belt in stops. Additionally, both teams enter Wednesday's game with a plus-three turnover margin. McCall and Coastal Carolina's offense will make this interesting, but Louisiana is still the better team, as Lewis makes enough plays in the fourth quarter to secure the victory.
Prediction: Louisiana 34, Coastal Carolina 27
(Top photo courtesy of Louisiana Athletics)