Louisiana's Billy Napier takes the top spot for 2020
The Sun Belt coaching ranks have experienced a lot of turnover in recent years, as only three coaches enter 2020 with three or more years at their current job. Those three coaches - ULM's Matt Viator, Arkansas State's Blake Anderson and Georgia State's Shawn Elliott - each rank inside of the top five of the Sun Belt coach rankings for 2020, but the top spot belongs to Louisiana's Billy Napier. The Ragin' Cajuns are 18-10 over the last two years and Napier has guided the program to back-to-back Sun Belt West Division titles.
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 Sun Belt Conference 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 the Sun Belt Conference:
Ranking Sun Belt's College Football Coaches for 2020
10. Jake Spavital, Texas State
Spavital inherited a Texas State program that finished 10-38 in the four years prior to his arrival. Instant success wasn’t expected in Spavital’s debut last fall, as the Bobcats finished 3-9 with two victories coming in Sun Belt play. The 35-year-old coach quickly moved through the ranks as an assistant with stints as an offensive coordinator at West Virginia, Texas A&M and California, but Texas State’s unit averaged only 18.4 points a game last season. Spavital needs to get the offense on track to have a shot at a winning mark in 2020, but some patience will be needed as another rebuilding year seems likely in San Marcos.
9. Chip Lindsey, Troy
With an experienced two-deep and a proven quarterback in Kaleb Barker leading the way, Lindsey seemed to have all of the pieces in place to build off Neal Brown’s successful tenure at Troy. However, that wasn’t the case, as the Trojans slid to 5-7 – a five-game regression from 2018 – and lost by a combined score of 101-16 to Louisiana and Appalachian State over the final two games. Scoring points wasn’t a problem (33.8 ppg), but Troy’s defense surrendered 38.4 points per contest in Sun Belt play. Lindsey is a native of Alabama and has extensive ties to the state through stops as an assistant in the high school ranks and also two years as Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2017-18.
8. Steve Campbell, South Alabama
With successful head-coaching stints at Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College (87-22), Delta State (27-8), and Central Arkansas (33-15), Campbell seemed like a great hire at South Alabama prior to the 2018 season. However, Campbell is still working to get the program on track. The Jaguars are just 5-19 over the last two years and needed a win over Arkansas State in the season finale to avoid a winless mark in Sun Belt play last fall. After finishing No. 117 in the SP+ rankings in 2018, South Alabama slipped to No. 122 in ’19. With the program opening a new stadium this fall, the 2020 season will be an important one for Campbell’s future in Mobile.
7. Shawn Clark, Appalachian State
Clark has big shoes to fill as he looks to pick up where Scott Satterfield and Eliah Drinkwitz have left off the last two years. During that span, Appalachian State went 24-3 with two Sun Belt titles and back-to-back victories in the New Orleans Bowl. While the bar is set high for Clark, he’s no stranger to the expectation level for the program. The West Virginia native played at Appalachian State from 1994-98 and later worked on Satterfield’s staff from 2016-18 and coached the offensive line under Drinkwitz last fall. Clark also has stops on his resume as an assistant coach working with the offensive line from stints at Eastern Kentucky (2003-08), Purdue (2009-12), and Kent State (2013-15). His tenure in Boone is already off to a good start, as Clark served as the program’s head coach for the New Orleans Bowl victory over UAB in 2019.
6. Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina
The 2019 season marked the first official year of Chadwell’s tenure at Coastal Carolina. He previously worked as the program’s interim coach in 2017 after Joe Moglia took a medical leave of absence and returned to the offensive coordinator role in ’18. The Chanticleers went 3-9 in Chadwell’s interim stint but finished 5-7 last fall. A deeper look at the numbers shows Coastal Carolina wasn’t far from a bowl, as four losses came by seven points or less. Additionally, Chadwell guided the program to a win over Kansas – the first victory over a Power 5 team since moving to the FBS level in ’17. Prior to joining Coastal Carolina, Chadwell went 35-14 as Charleston Southern’s head coach from 2013-16, finished 3-7 in a one-year stint at Delta State (2012) and compiled a 22-14 record at North Greenville (2009-11).
5. Shawn Elliott, Georgia State
Located in the heart of fertile recruiting territory, Georgia State is a program with plenty of growth potential. Elliott has started to tap into that potential, as the Panthers are 16-21 over the last three years and have played in two bowl games during that span. En route to a 6-2 start last season, the program scored a huge win over Tennessee (38-30) in the 2019 opener and also knocked off Arkansas State for the first time in Sun Belt play. Replacing quarterback Dan Ellington into 2020 won’t be easy, but the Panthers return 17 starters and a foundation capable of pushing for another winning mark this fall. Counting a 1-5 stint as South Carolina’s interim coach in 2015, Elliott’s overall record sits at 17-26 going into the 2020 season.
4. Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern has finished No. 87 in ESPN’s SP+ rankings in back-to-back years, but a tougher non-conference slate and the statistical regression in turnover margin (+22 in 2018) and statistical performance of both sides of the ball dropped Lunsford’s team to 7-6 last fall after a 10-3 finish in ’18. While the 2019 campaign didn’t match the win total from the previous year, the Eagles are still 19-13 under Lunsford and have played in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history. The Georgia native took over as the program’s interim coach with six games left in the 2017 season and was retained to the full-time role after guiding the team to wins in two out of the final three games.
3. Matt Viator, ULM
ULM is the toughest job in the Sun Belt, but Viator guided the program to a 6-6 mark in 2018 and a 5-7 record last year. The Warhawks have just one bowl appearance and three non-losing records since 1994. With those trends in mind, it’s even more impressive Viator has nearly guided ULM to back-to-back bowl trips. Overall, Viator is 19-29 at ULM and previously went 78-33 at McNeese State from 2006-15. Under his watch, the Cowboys made the FCS playoffs five times and never recorded a losing record. Viator is slated to handle play-calling duties for the offense in 2020.
2. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
Arkansas State has emerged as a consistent contender for the Sun Belt title under Anderson’s watch. The Red Wolves are 47-30 over the last six years and have won at least seven games every season during that span. Additionally, Arkansas State has played in a bowl every year under Anderson and has not posted a losing record in Sun Belt play. The Red Wolves also claimed a share of the conference twice (2015-16), while two of the program’s four bowl victories came under Anderson’s direction. Pencil in Arkansas State near the top of the Sun Belt once again in 2020.
1. Billy Napier, Louisiana
Napier is a coach on the rise and moves to the top spot in the Sun Belt coach rankings after guiding Louisiana to an 11-3 record last season. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 18-10 under Napier’s direction and have claimed the Sun Belt’s West Division title in back-to-back years. Additionally, the 11-win campaign last season marked the first time Louisiana has won double-digit games and set a new program record for the most wins in a single year. Napier is also regarded for his work on the recruiting trail, as the Ragin’ Cajuns have reeled in the top class in the Sun Belt in back-to-back years. The former assistant to Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban also calls the plays for Louisiana. After averaging 28.2 points a game in 2017, Napier helped the offense improve to 31.9 a contest in ’18 and 37.9 last season. Beating Appalachian State and claiming the Sun Belt title is the biggest hurdle remaining for Napier entering 2020. Of Louisiana’s 10 losses the last two years, four of those came against the Mountaineers.
(Top photo courtesy of ragincajuns.com)
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