Editor's note: On Thursday night, the Sun Belt announced that Saturday's scheduled championship game between Louisiana and Coastal Carolin has been canceled due to a positive COVID-19 test and contract tracing for the Chanticleers. The conference said both teams will be crowned co-champions and they will await their bowl destinations.
The No. 12-ranked Coastal Carolina Chanticleerswill host the No. 19-ranked Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns inside Brooks Stadium on Saturday for all the marbles in the Sun Belt Championship Game. It will mark the first time ever that two top-20 teams have met in the Sun Belt title game. Undefeated Coastal Carolina handed Louisiana its only loss of the season back on Oct. 14 in a 30-27 thriller in Lafayette. And there is no shortage of intrigue for Saturday's exciting rematch to decide this year's Sun Belt champion.
With one exception, that being the closely contested loss to Coastal Carolina, Louisiana has made easy work of the competition en route to its third straight Sun Belt West title under head coach Billy Napier. The Ragin' Cajuns kicked off their impressive 9-1 (7-1 Sun Belt) campaign with a stunning 31-14 upset of Iowa State on the road. And they concluded their regular season with another big road victory against Appalachian State by a score of 24-21 back on Dec. 4, giving the Cajuns their sixth consecutive win and their first-ever victory against the Mountaineers in nine attempts. Now fresh off an open date, Louisiana hopes to ride this momentum into the rematch against the Chanticleers. In addition to looking for a little payback on Saturday, the Ragin' Cajuns will be in search of their first-ever win in the Sun Belt Championship Game after finding themselves on the losing end of the last two title games.
It's been a magical run for a Coastal Carolina squad that has captured the attention and hearts of America. In the latest chapter of their storybook campaign, the Chanticleers narrowly escaped defeat against upset-minded Troy with a last-minute touchdown drive to seal a 42-38 victory. Not only did last Saturday's win over the Trojans help preserve the Chants' perfect season, but Coastal also became the first and only 11-win team in the nation, the first Sun Belt team to ever conclude a regular season with an unblemished record, and the first team in conference history to crack the top 10 in the AP Poll. That's not too shabby for a program that was picked to finish dead last in the Sun Belt East prior to the start of this season. Now a perfect 11-0 (8-0 Sun Belt) in just their fourth season at the FBS level, the Sun Belt East champs will turn their attention to Saturday's rematch against Louisiana in search of their first outright conference title. If successful, Jamey Chadwell's Chanticleers could be in line to secure a New Year's Six bowl game to set up the final chapter of the feel-good story of the year in college football.
Sun Belt Championship Game: No. 19 Louisiana at No. 12 Coastal Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Coastal Carolina -3.5
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Senior quarterback Levi Lewis leads the way for a balanced Louisiana offense that averages 34 points and 423 yards per game. For the season, Lewis has completed 60 percent of his pass attempts for 2,128 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. It's been a collective effort from a Louisiana receiving corps that has featured 19 different pass catchers this season and 12 different players that have recorded at least one touchdown reception. That group is led by wide receivers Jalen Williams (19 rec., 345 yds., 3 TDs), Kyren Lacy (24, 326, 3), and Peter LeBlanc (23, 334, 1).
The Ragin' Cajuns had some issues moving the football through the air against Coastal Carolina's "Black Swarm" defense in the previous meeting back in October, as Lewis passed for just 177 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Louisiana passing attack will once again have its work cut out for it on Saturday against a pass defense that is currently giving up 202 yards per game through the air on the season. The Chanticleers also have allowed just 11 touchdown passes in as many games and have accumulated 14 interceptions — led by cornerback D'Jordan Strong's five. Tarron Jackson (8.5 sacks), C.J. Brewer (6.5 sacks), and Jeffrey Gunter (6.5 sacks) lead the way for a formidable pass rush that has generated a Sun Belt-best 33 sacks. That should make for an interesting matchup against a Louisiana offensive line that has surrendered a Sun Belt-low nine sacks and surrendered just one in the previous matchup against Coastal.
Louisiana's best chance for success will likely come on the ground by way of an attack that averages 208 rushing yards per game and a Sun Belt-leading 5.4 yards per carry. The Ragin' Cajuns feature a potent four-pronged rushing attack comprised of running backs Elijah Mitchell (122 att., 751 yds., 7 TDs), Trey Ragas (117, 660, 9), and Chris Smith (59, 332, 1) to go along with Lewis (48, 310, 5). Those four players alone have collectively accounted for 2,053 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground in 10 games. They will be paired against a CCU run defense that allows 138 rushing yards per game (No. 2 Sun Belt/No. 39 FBS). However, the Ragin' Cajuns are the team that has had the most success this season, picking up 236 yards and three scores on the ground against Coastal back in October.
When Coastal Carolina Has the Ball
Redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall headlines an intricate offense that averages 38 points and 447 yards per game. McCall has completed 69.3 percent of his pass attempts for 2,170 yards with 23 touchdowns and just two interceptions so far this season. And he's proven to be one of the most efficient signal-callers in the country, ranking top 10 nationally in both yards per pass attempt (10.0) and passing efficiency rating (185.9). McCall leans heavily on go-to wide receiver Jaivon Heiligh (52 rec., 820 yds., 10 TDs). Tight end Isaiah Likely (25, 517, 4) and do-it-all running back CJ Marable (30, 220, 7) have been reliable targets as well.
McCall will carry the momentum of a season-high 338 passing yards last week against Troy into Saturday's matchup against Louisiana. McCall was fairly successful in leading the CCU passing attack against Louisiana in the first matchup, throwing for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But he could be in for a more difficult challenge this time around against a Ragin' Cajun pass defense that has really tightened up in recent weeks. In fact, Louisiana has one of the stingiest pass defenses in the country, giving up just 166 yards per game through the air (No. 1 Sun Belt/No. 4 FBS). The Cajuns also have allowed the fewest touchdown passes (8) in the Sun Belt this season and have more interceptions (15) to their credit than any other team in the conference — led by ball-hawking safety Bralen Trahan's four.
Much like Louisiana, the strength of the Coastal Carolina offense lies in a stout rushing attack that averages 223.2 yards per game (No. 15 FBS). Marable spearheads that effort as the Chanticleers' leading rusher (162 att., 844 yds., 12 TDs). Marable has scored at least one touchdown in his last 10 games and leads all Sun Belt players with 19 total touchdowns. In his last three contests alone, the senior running back has racked up a beastly 466 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. Marable will have help in the backfield on Saturday in Reese White (83, 468, 6) and Shermari Jones (79, 377, 3). McCall also poses a serious threat with his legs, rushing for 473 yards and six scores on the year. The Chants will be matched up against a Louisiana defense that has struggled against the run this season, allowing a generous 181 rushing yards per game (No. 83 FBS). Coastal should be able to capitalize on that weakness to keep the chains moving and control the clock, much like it did in the previous matchup.
The Ragin' Cajuns have the benefit of an extra week of rest and preparation courtesy of last week's open date. Meanwhile, the Chanticleers might be a little worse for the wear after a steady grind of four consecutive games — three of which came against tough opponents. It's also never easy to beat a team twice in the same season, particularly when that team is as good as Louisiana. However, unlike the previous meeting, Coastal will have home-field advantage this time around in what is shaping up to be another slugfest. And at the end of the day, the slightly superior Chanticleers will be able to use its advantage in the run game to once again come out on top against the Ragin' Cajuns. Coastal Carolina completes the season sweep to secure its first-ever Sun Belt championship and keep its perfect season intact.
Prediction: Coastal Carolina 31, Louisiana 24
Podcast: Path to the Playoff + Championship Game Previews and Picks
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.