The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers and Troy Trojans are set to duke it out for conference supremacy on Saturday in the Sun Belt Football Championship Game.
Coastal Carolina (9-2, 6-2 Sun Belt) will be in pursuit of its second Sun Belt championship in three years. The Chanticleers were named co-champions in 2020 (alongside Louisiana) following the cancellation of the title game due to COVID-19. So, this will mark the Chants' first actual appearance in the title game. And it does come with a grain of salt, given that James Madison technically claimed the East Division crown with a 47-7 blowout win over Coastal in last week's regular-season finale. However, with this being JMU's first season at the FBS level after transitioning from the FCS ranks, the Dukes are not eligible for postseason play this season, per NCAA rules. Thus, CCU won the East somewhat by default.
That's not to say that the Chanticleers aren't deserving of another shot at a conference championship. They have been one of the best Group of 5 teams in the country over the last three seasons under head coach Jamey Chadwell — compiling a record of 31-5 since 2020. They also have a perfect 10-0 record against Sun Belt West teams during that timeframe. And with a victory over Troy on Saturday, the Chanticleers would be in great company with Alabama and Clemson as the only FBS teams to post double-digit wins in each of the last three seasons. That said, it will be a tall order for the Chants to pull off the upset against the red-hot Trojans on their home field, particularly if star quarterback Grayson McCall continues to miss time with an ankle injury suffered in the Nov. 3 win over Appalachian State.
Troy (10-2, 7-1) returned to its winning ways this season under first-year head coach Jon Sumrall, following a dismal three-year run under Chip Lindsey. Sumrall sparked a remarkable turnaround, already doubling the Trojans' win total from last season, en route to their first-ever appearance in the Sun Belt Football Championship Game. But make no mistake, Troy is no stranger when it comes to Sun Belt titles. The Trojans have six of them, all coming between 2006 and 2017, prior to the conference splitting into two divisions and establishing the conference championship game in 2018.
Troy dominated Arkansas State 48-19 on the road last Saturday to clinch its first Sun Belt West title. The Trojans trailed the Red Wolves 19-14 heading into the fourth quarter before exploding to extend their winning streak to nine games in a row. That ties UTSA for the longest in the FBS, not including the three remaining undefeated teams (Georgia, Michigan, and TCU). If not for an answered Hail Mary thrown by Appalachian State back on Sept. 17, Troy would have 10 straight wins and be undefeated in conference play. Nevertheless, the Trojans enter Saturday's championship tilt against Coastal Carolina with a big head of steam.
This will be the sixth time these teams will have faced each other. Coastal Carolina holds a slight 3-2 edge with three straight victories over Troy. All of those wins have been of the one-score variety, including last season's 35-28 home victory.
Sun Belt Football Championship Game: Coastal Carolina at Troy
When Coastal Carolina Has the Ball
The most critical aspect to the Chanticleers' chances for offensive success on Saturday lies in the availability of Grayson McCall, a two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year. And based on Chadwell's comments earlier this week, CCU's star quarterback seems doubtful to play. "It's closer to probably a bowl game than it would be this week," he said regarding McCall's status. "We'll just continue to see how he's healing." He also added that the doctors are saying it will be closer to a six-week window for his recovery from this ankle injury, and Saturday will mark four weeks since he got hurt. He concluded his comments by leaving the door somewhat open. "But, if he can go this week, then I know he'll want to go," Chadwell said. "If he's not healthy and he has an opportunity to hurt himself worse, then we're not going to let him play.”
If McCall is unable to play, Chadwell will have to choose between Jarrett Guest and Bryce Carpenter at quarterback. Guest has gotten the starting nod in each of the last two games but the results have not been good. Guest has completed just 44 percent of his pass attempts for 302 yards with only one touchdown compared to four interceptions. That could put Carpenter in line to get his first start of the season. Carpenter, a super senior, has put up respectable numbers during his time at CCU, albeit in limited action, mostly in garbage time. Either way, the Chants' offense isn't likely to be up to par on Saturday without McCall behind center. His absence would certainly be bad news for leading receivers Sam Pinckney and Jared Brown. And it wouldn't bode particularly well for top running backs CJ Beasley and Reese White either.
Even if McCall is healthy enough to give it a go on Saturday, the Chanticleers will still be in for a serious challenge against a very stout Troy defense. The Trojans rank eighth nationally in scoring defense (16.8 ppg) and No. 16 in total defense (316.8 ypg). Senior linebacker Carlton Martial, the FBS's all-time leader in tackles, headlines a stingy run defense that allows just 3.29 yards per carry. Meanwhile, cornerback Reddy Steward (team-high three INTs and seven pass breakups) spearheads the Sun Belt's top-ranked pass defense, which has just as many interceptions to its credit (10) as it does passing touchdowns allowed. Edge rushers T.J. Jackson (team-high eight sacks) and Richard Jibunor (six) lead a dynamic Troy pass rush that has generated 37 sacks on the season. Jackson also leads the Sun Belt in tackles for a loss with 15.5.
When Troy Has the Ball
A Troy offense that averages 24.6 points and 371.4 yards per game hasn't been anything to write home about this season. Quarterback Gunnar Watson has been inconsistent at best — completing 61.4 percent of his passes for 2,387 yards with only 10 touchdowns against the same number of interceptions. Watson does have a solid receiving corps at his disposal, led by Tez Johnson (49 rec., 764 yds., 4 TDs) and RaJae' Johnson (30, 538, 4). However, a Troy offensive line that played a huge role in surrendering 36 sacks during the regular season remains a liability.
Troy hasn't exactly been spectacular running the football either. The Trojans rank No. 100 nationally in that department, churning out 124 rushing yards per contest. The silver lining is that running back Kimani Vidal has been absolutely on fire of late, rushing for 450 yards and six touchdowns in the last two games alone to put him over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season. A trend team can only hope carries over into Saturday's high-stakes showdown.
The Troy offense will be matched up against a Coastal Carolina defense that has taken a pretty big step backward this season, allowing 28.7 points and almost 413 yards per game. CCU has been good against the run, giving up 134 rushing yards per game, thanks in large part to linebacker JT Killen, the team's leading tackler. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Chants' deplorable pass defense, which ranks dead last in the Sun Belt. In fact, only three teams in the entire FBS allow more yards per pass attempt than Coastal Carolina's 8.8.
To put it bluntly, Coastal Carolina has little to no chance of pulling off this upset without Grayson McCall running the offense on Saturday. Even with McCall, it would no small task to knock off Troy on its home field (6-0 at Veterans Memorial Stadium this season). The Chanticleers might be able to hold their own on defense against a less-than-stellar Trojans offense. But moving the football and putting points on the scoreboard will be a real challenge for Coastal (with or without McCall) against a Troy team that boasts one of the best Group of 5 defenses in the country. There are also plenty of reports suggesting that this will be Jamey Chadwell's last game as the head coach of the Chanticleers, which could be a major distraction for his team on Saturday. Chadwell is widely viewed as the top candidate to fill the vacancy at either USF or Liberty, among others.
Prediction: Troy 27, Coastal Carolina 14
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
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