The 2018 group of coaches in the Sun Belt is led by three rising stars who could be at Power 5 jobs in the near future. Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield, Troy’s Neal Brown and Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson take the top three spots in the coach rankings, with all three having a case for No. 1. Satterfield gets the nod as Athlon’s top coach in the Sun Belt, but little separates the former Appalachian State quarterback from Anderson or Brown. ULM’s Matt Viator and South Alabama’s Steve Campbell round out the next tier.
Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
How did we compile the rankings for the Sun Belt coaches? For starters, it’s an impossible task. However, we tried to weigh every possible factor into this ranking. This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky.
Every team has a different variety or built-in resources available, and hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. Those factors, along with career biography/resume, success in developing talent and landing prospects on the recruiting trail factored into the ranking. Additionally, how well programs value staff (is the head coach better as a CEO or hands-on approach) and the facilities or program resources matter into forming an outlook of how coaches have performed at different stops throughout their career.
Again, wins and the career biography to this point are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire knowing what they accomplished so far and their career trajectory? Remember, you don't get the assistants - only the head coach. And head-to-head wins do not matter for this ranking. Athlon's editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 conferences. Here are the results for Sun Belt:
Ranking the Sun Belt's College Football Coaches for 2018
10. Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern
After an 0-6 start to the 2017 season, Georgia Southern fired coach Tyson Summers and promoted Lunsford to the interim role. Lunsford made the most of the opportunity, guiding the Eagles to a 2-4 finish over the final six contests. While Lunsford was just 2-4, there were signs of improvement in the team’s overall performance and the stint was enough to land the full-time job. The South Carolina native has worked as an assistant at Georgia Southern from 2003-06 and again from 2013-17. He also has stops on his resume from stints at Appalachian State (2001-03) and at Auburn in an off-field capacity from 2009-13. Lunsford pushed the right buttons in an interim role last season and now he’s tasked with getting Georgia Southern’s program back to the top of the Sun Belt. After hiring a good staff, Lunsford appears to be putting the pieces into place for the Eagles to build off last year’s finish.
9. Everett Withers, Texas State
Withers came to San Marcos after an impressive two-year run at James Madison from 2014-15. Under Withers’ direction, the Dukes went 18-7 and earned two trips to the FCS playoffs. However, Withers has struggled to find success in his two seasons at Texas State. The Bobcats are 4-20 over the last two years and have only one Sun Belt victory in that span. On the positive side, Withers has recruited well. Texas State inked the Sun Belt’s No. 1 class in 2017.
8. Billy Napier, Louisiana
Napier was considered one of college football’s rising stars in the coordinator ranks last season and should be a good fit with the Ragin’ Cajuns. The Georgia native has spent most of his coaching career in the Southeast. Napier worked as a graduate assistant at Clemson from 2003-04, followed by a one-year stint at South Carolina State. He returned to Death Valley in 2006 and was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2009. However, Napier was let go following the 2009 season and landed in Tuscaloosa in an off-field role for Alabama for one year (2011), followed by one season at Colorado State in 2012. Napier returned to Tuscaloosa in 2013 and coached wide receivers until 2016. He was hired as Arizona State’s offensive coordinator prior to 2017, helping the offense improve from 5.2 yards a play to 5.7 last fall. Napier is young (38) and has no previous head coaching experience. However, his background on offense, along with insight gained from working under Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney should pay dividends.
7. Shawn Elliott, Georgia State
Under Elliott’s direction, Georgia State was arguably the Sun Belt’s biggest surprise in 2017. The South Carolina native took over the program following the 2016 season and overcame an 0-2 start to finish 7-5 overall. Additionally, the Panthers claimed the first bowl victory in school history by defeating WKU in the Cure Bowl. Prior to Georgia State, Elliott worked from 2010-16 at South Carolina, including a stint as interim coach in 2015. Elliott also had a stop as an assistant at Appalachian State from 1997-09.
6. Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina
Moglia was on medical leave for the 2017 season but will return to the sidelines for 2018. That’s good news for a Coastal Carolina program in the midst of a transition to the FBS level. Under the direction of offensive coordinator Jamey Chadwell, the Chanticleers finished 3-9 in their first year at the FBS level. However, Coastal Carolina finished 2017 by winning its last two games, providing the program with momentum headed into the offseason. The Chanticleers went 51-15 in Moglia’s first five seasons, which included four trips to the FCS playoffs. Moglia might have the most interesting background of any FBS coach. After working in the high school and collegiate ranks from 1968-83, Moglia left the gridiron and worked at Merrill Lynch until 2000. In 2001, Moglia was hired as the CEO of TD Ameritrade and remained with the company until 2008. He later worked as an off-field assistant for Nebraska from 2009-10 and led the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL league in 2011.
5. Steve Campbell, South Alabama
Campbell is just the second coach in South Alabama history and brings impressive credentials to Mobile. The Florida native went 33-15 over the last four years at Central Arkansas, which included two trips to the FCS playoffs (2016-17). Under Campbell’s watch, the Bears finished ninth nationally in scoring offense last year. Prior to the stint at Central Arkansas, Campbell worked as the head coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College (2004-13) and Delta State (1999-01) and had stops as an assistant at Mississippi State, MTSU and Nicholls State. Campbell is 159-53 during his 20 years as a head coach. Former coach Joey Jones got South Alabama’s program off the ground and competitive within the Sun Belt. Campbell is tasked with elevating the Jaguars to the next level and into contention for the league title.
4. Matt Viator, ULM
ULM appears to be on the verge of a breakout season in 2018. Viator has brought small improvement through the first two years of his tenure, finishing 8-16 over that span. However, the Warhawks weren’t far from a winning record in 2017. ULM defeated Sun Belt co-champion Appalachian State and lost four games by 10 points or less last fall. Prior to taking over at ULM, Viator went 78-33 at McNeese State, which also included five trips to the FCS playoffs. With only one winning record since 2001, ULM is one of the toughest jobs in the Sun Belt. However, Viator’s first two years have showed signs of progress. With 15 starters back for 2018, this team is a threat to reach the postseason.
3. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
Anderson ranks third on this list among Sun Belt coaches, but little separates the top three names from this conference. Under Anderson’s watch, Arkansas State is 31-20 overall and 26-6 in Sun Belt play over the last four years. The Red Wolves have also earned four bowl trips under Anderson and claimed the Sun Belt title in 2015 with a perfect 8-0 league record. Prior to taking over at Arkansas State, Anderson worked as the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss (2010-11) and North Carolina (2012-13) and had other stints at Louisiana (2007), MTSU (2002-04) and New Mexico (1999-01).
2. Neal Brown, Troy
Brown is one of college football’s top coaches on the rise. The Kentucky native had big shoes to fill in replacing Larry Blakeney in 2015 and went 4-8 in his debut with the Trojans. However, Troy has showed marked improvement since that season. The Trojans are 21-5 over the last two years and claimed a share of the league title last fall with a 7-1 mark in conference play. Troy also scored a huge non-conference victory by defeating LSU in Baton Rouge last season. Brown had previous experience at Troy, working under Blakeney from 2006-09. He also worked as an offensive coordinator from stints at Texas Tech (2010-12) and Kentucky (2013-14). In addition to his track record of building high-powered offenses, Brown is quickly proving he can build a program as a head coach.
1. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State
Satterfield ranks as Athlon’s No. 1 coach in the Sun Belt for the third consecutive year. The former Appalachian State quarterback replaced legendary coach Jerry Moore in 2013 and helped the program transition to the FBS level. Satterfield went 4-8 in his first season but has recorded four consecutive winning seasons. The Mountaineers finished 7-5 in their first year at the FBS level, followed by an 11-2 record in 2015 and a 10-3 mark in 2016. Appalachian State finished 9-4 last season, which included the program’s third consecutive 7-1 season in league play. Also, Satterfield’s teams in 2016-17 claimed a share of the Sun Belt title.