Publish date:

Sun Belt Football 2021 Predictions

Complete Sun Belt preview for the 2021 season
Levi Lewis, Louisiana Ragin Cajuns Football

Levi Lewis, Louisiana Ragin Cajuns Football

The 2021 Sun Belt predictions feature a pair of projected top 25 teams to meet in the conference title game, as Louisiana and Coastal Carolina are Athlon’s picks to win the divisions once again this fall. The Ragin’ Cajuns and Chanticleers topped their respective divisions last season, but the conference title game was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. And if both teams play up to preseason expectations, the Sun Belt Championship Game could play a key role in determining which program ranks as the top Group of 5 team at the end of the year.

Appalachian State headlines the next tier of teams after Louisiana and Coastal Carolina, with Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Troy up next. Arkansas State hopes to rebound under new coach Butch Jones, while Texas State looks to continue its improvement under third-year coach Jake Spavital. South Alabama made a promising hire in Kane Wommack and could be the sleeper team to watch in the Sun Belt West Division. ULM rounds out the bottom of the West for 2021.

Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2021, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for the Sun Belt Conference in '21:

East Division

1. Coastal Carolina

The Chanticleers were the breakout star of the 2020 college football season. And with a veteran roster in place, coach Jamey Chadwell’s squad has a chance to run the table and finish ’21 as the highest-ranked Group of 5 team for a spot in the New Year’s Six.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Coastal Carolina averaged 5.5 yards per play and 30.3 points a game in 2019. Those totals jumped to 6.7 a snap and 37.2 a contest in ’20, largely due to the emergence of quarterback Grayson McCall. In his first season as the starter, McCall accounted for 33 overall scores and tossed just three picks. He should be even better as a sophomore. McCall’s supporting cast is strong with all five starters back up front and Jaivon Heiligh (receiver) and Isaiah Likely (tight end) back on the outside. Reese White and Shermari Jones should replace the production lost by CJ Marable’s departure at running back.

Concern: It’s hard to find anything of note here. Marable will be missed, and Coastal Carolina could use another receiver or two to emerge, but both are minor issues for a loaded offense.

Incoming Transfers: TE Turon Ivy; OL Zovon Lindsay

Previewing the Defense

Strength: This unit showed marked improvement last year by limiting teams to 5.5 yards per snap and 20.2 points a game (down from 30.5 in 2019). The Chanticleers return one of the top lines, linebacker units and defensive backfields in the Sun Belt. Simply, a standout defense is going to be as good (or better) than it was in ’20.

Concern: End Tarron Jackson is the only major personnel loss on this defense, but he was a big piece of last year’s group with 8.5 sacks. There’s room to improve in red zone defense after finishing ninth in the conference last year.

Incoming Transfers: DL Emmanuel Johnson; DB Tre Douglas; DB Lance Boykin; DL Amadou Fofana

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Appalachian State

The Mountaineers have won at least nine games in every season since 2015. While coach Shawn Clark has a big void to fill at quarterback, contending for the Sun Belt title is once again in reach, especially with Coastal Carolina set to visit Boone in mid-October.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Frank Ponce is a solid coordinator hire and inherits a group returning eight starters, including arguably the No. 1 receiving corps in the Sun Belt and running back Camerun Peoples. Appalachian State’s offensive line should be solid despite losing three starters.

Concern: The biggest question surrounding the Mountaineers for 2021 rests under center. Zac Thomas will be missed, and Clark dipped into the portal for help, bringing former Clemson and Duke signal-caller Chase Brice to Boone. Brice is the frontrunner, but Jacob Huesman is also in the mix. Appalachian State has room to improve in the red zone after finishing eighth in the Sun Belt last year.

Incoming Transfers: QB Chase Brice; OL Isaiah Helms; RB Jahmir Smith; WR Jacoby Pinckney

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The unit has been an annual strength for Appalachian State and is strong once again with nine returning starters. Since joining the Sun Belt, the Mountaineers have not finished lower than third in the conference in yards per play allowed and fifth in scoring defense. End Demetrius Taylor is back up front, while D’Marco Jackson and Trey Cobb anchor the linebackers. Replacing cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles won’t be easy but three other starters – including standout corner Shaun Jolly – are back in the secondary.

Concern: As mentioned above, cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles leaves big shoes to fill on the edge. Appalachian State can do a better job at limiting big plays after giving up 15 of 40-plus yards last season.

Incoming Transfers: CB Donte Small; S Madison Cone; S Stuart Head

Related: Sun Belt 2021 All-Conference Team

3. Georgia State

The Panthers finished 2020 by winning four out of their final five games and earned the program’s third bowl trip in four seasons under coach Shawn Elliott. The top of the Sun Belt East is loaded with Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State. However, Georgia State will be a tough out for the contenders.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Panthers averaged 33.3 points a game behind the play of quarterback Cornelious Brown IV, a solid offensive line and a deep collection of skill players last season. All of the pieces instrumental to that success are back, which should allow for this offense to perform even better in ’21.

Concern: Georgia State needs to do a better job at limiting turnovers after losing 20 last year. Also, the ground game could use a few more big plays after averaging only 4.3 yards per carry.

Incoming Transfers: WR Ja’Cyais Credle; QB Darren Grainger

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Panthers gave up 31.7 points a game in 2020, but the ’21 version should improve with nine starters back, including safety Antavious Lane, end Hardrick Willis, linebacker Blake Carroll and cornerback Quavian White. Georgia State led the Sun Belt in sacks (35) and finished second in the conference in third-down defense and against the run.

Concern: Linebackers Trajan Stephens-McQueen and Jordan Strachan (9.5 sacks in 2020) won’t be easy to replace. And after giving up 31.7 points a game and 5.6 yards a snap last season, Georgia State has plenty of work to do on this side of the ball. How far will this unit develop in ’21?

Incoming Transfers: DL Shamar McCollum

4. Troy

Troy’s record last year (5-6) was nearly identical to coach Chip Lindsey’s debut (5-7) in 2019, but the 2020 version represented a step in the right direction. Can the Trojans return to a bowl in ’21?

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Lindsey’s offense brings back one of the top lines in the Sun Belt, which includes standout left tackle Austin Stidham. The top four rushers from last season are back, and Reggie Todd and Tray Eafford provide a couple of proven weapons on the outside.

Concern: Will Gunnar Watson hold off Taylor Powell in the quarterback battle? Last year’s No. 1 receiver Kaylon Geiger transferred to Texas Tech following spring ball. Troy needs more big plays (just nine of 40-plus yards in 2020) and has to perform better in the red zone (ninth in the Sun Belt). Also, the ground game managed only 3.1 yards per carry in conference action.

Incoming Transfers: QB Taylor Powell

Previewing the Defense

Strength: This side of the ball showed marked improvement in 2020. After giving up 34.8 points a game in ’19, the Trojans allowed 25.7 a contest. Also, Troy cut its per-play total to 5.5 – down from 6.2. With eight starters back, Lindsey should expect more improvement out of this group. Linebacker Carlton Martial is one of the top defensive players at the Group of 5 level.

Concern: The Trojans still have room to improve here. This group gave up nearly 167 yards a game and finished sixth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. Also, losing cornerback Terence Dunlap after spring practice to transfer was a setback.

Incoming Transfers: CB Elijah Culp; LB Kevon Glenn; CB Taiyon Palmer; DL Jamarcus Chatman; LB Jordan Anthony; P Luke Magliozzi; DL Cherokee Glasgow

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

5. Georgia Southern

It’s a close battle between Georgia State, Troy and Georgia Southern for the No. 3 spot behind Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State in the Sun Belt East Division. For the Eagles to push ahead and finish with their fourth consecutive winning mark, coach Chad Lunsford’s squad needs to find a quarterback and replace a couple of key cogs on defense.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Eagles are loaded with depth and talent at running back. J.D. King, Logan Wright, Gerald Green and Tulane transfer Amare Jones provide coordinator Doug Ruse with plenty of options. A strong foundation also returns up front with four starters. Georgia Southern also ranked third in the most plays of 40-plus yards (18) in the Sun Belt last year.

Concern: Can Justin Tomlin or Georgia Tech transfer James Graham successfully replace Shai Werts at quarterback? The Eagles finished eighth in Sun Belt-only games by averaging 25.1 points a game. The offense lost too many turnovers (17) in 2020.

Incoming Transfers: QB James Graham; RB Amare Jones

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Georgia Southern had one of the Sun Belt’s top defenses last season. This unit held teams to 20.8 points a game, limited offenses to 5.1 yards per play and ranked first in the conference in rush defense. The Eagles allowed only eight plays of 40-plus yards and led the Sun Belt in third-down defense. Defensive back Derrick Canteen is one of the top returning defensive players in the conference.

Concern: Lineman Raymond Johnson III leaves a big void in the trenches, and two key cogs at linebacker – Rashad Byrd and Reynard Ellis – must be replaced. Maintaining the high number of forced turnovers (26 last year) will be difficult.

Incoming Transfers: LB Khadry Jackson; LB Andrew Johnson

West Division

1. Louisiana

The goal for coach Billy Napier’s team in 2021 is clear. After winning three consecutive Sun Belt West Division titles, the biggest hurdle left to cross is a conference championship. If Louisiana can win the Sun Belt outright, and upset Texas in Week 1, a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl is a realistic possibility.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: This was one of the top offenses in the Sun Belt last season and there’s little reason to doubt this group in 2021. Quarterback Levi Lewis returns as a super senior, and the Ragin’ Cajuns have one of the top offensive lines in the conference. The receiving corps may not have a clear No. 1 threat, but depth and talent isn’t an issue.

Concern: Replacing two standout backs in Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas won’t be easy. Louisiana has talent and options here, but will the new backs be as productive? The offense has room to improve on third downs and inside the red zone. Finding a consistent kicker is a must.

Incoming Transfers: WR Michael Jefferson; RB Jacob Kibodi; OL Matthew Anderson; QB Lance LeGendre; QB Ben Wooldridge; OL T.J. Fiailoa; WR John Stephens

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Louisiana allowed only 22 points a game and led the Sun Belt by holding teams to 4.92 yards a snap last season. With 10 starters back, along with depth and talent at every level, this unit should be one of the top defenses at the Group of 5 level. The secondary allowed only 10 passing scores over 11 games and finished first in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.

Concern: The pass rush could use a spark after generating just 19 sacks in 2020, and the Ragin’ Cajuns could be better on third downs (eighth in the Sun Belt). There’s also room to improve against the run (184.7 yards a game allowed last year).

Incoming Transfers: DL Clinton Anokwuru; DB Tyrone Lewis

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Arkansas State

Arkansas State’s run of nine consecutive seasons with a bowl bid ended last year. New coach Butch Jones has enough firepower on offense to get the Red Wolves back to the postseason, but this program needs to show big progress on defense to navigate a tough schedule.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback Layne Hatcher is one of the Sun Belt’s top signal-callers after throwing for 2,058 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. Dahu Green and Corey Rucker lead a promising group of receivers, and four starters are back up front. Arkansas State led all Sun Belt offenses by generating 22 plays of 40-plus yards in 2020.

Concern: Improving around the edges with pass protection (29 sacks allowed), better ball control (16 lost turnovers) and third-down offense (seventh in the Sun Belt) would help this offense even more on the scoreboard. Leading rusher Jamal Jones departed and more big plays are needed from the ground game after averaging only 3.6 yards per carry in 2020. Jarrett Horst leaves big shoes to fill at left tackle.

Incoming Transfers: QB James Blackman; OL Robert Holmes; WR Akeem Hayes; RB Johnnie Lang; WR Khyheem Waleed; RB Alan Lamar; QB Brady Martin; WR Tevailance Hunt

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Arkansas State’s defense struggled mightily last year, but with a new coordinator and eight returning starters in place, this unit should show some improvement on the stat sheet. Also, help is coming through the transfer portal.

Concern: The stat sheet wasn’t pretty in 2020. The Red Wolves gave up 37.2 points a game, surrendered 6.3 yards per play and finished ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Also, this unit allowed too many big plays and struggled to generate a pass rush. Linebacker Justin Rice and tackle Forrest Merrill were the top players on this group and both departed after 2020.

Recommended Articles

Incoming Transfers: DL John Mincey; DL Quay Mays; DL/LB Kivon Bennett; DL Thurman Geathers; DL Joseph Ozougwu

3. Texas State

The Bobcats are only 5-19 under coach Jake Spavital, but of the program’s 10 losses last season, six came by 10 points or less. Texas State is showing signs of progress under Spavital, and an infusion of transfers should help this team take another step forward in 2021.  

Previewing the Offense

Strength: In 2019, Texas State averaged 18.4 points a game and 4.97 yards a play. Those numbers jumped to 27.7 a contest and 5.7 a snap last year. Quarterback Brady McBride is promising, and No. 1 receiver Marcell Barbee (10 TDs) is a big-time playmaker on the outside. The Bobcats are deep at running back and added help through the transfer portal to bolster the offensive line.

Concern: Making another jump in production is a reasonable expectation for this group. But how far can Spavital take it in 2021? The offensive line needs to improve in pass protection, while more big plays are needed overall. McBride needs a couple of receivers to emerge after two key targets departed on the outside. Eliminating turnovers and performing better on third downs is a must.

Incoming Transfers: OL Liam Dick; OL Nick Fulwider; WR Dennis Robinson; WR Julian Ortega-Jones; OL Liam Dobson; QB Ty Evans; OL Charles Fletcher; WR Waydale Jones; WR Brady Rogers

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Last year’s stat sheet didn’t provide much promise. However, Texas State returns eight starters, including one of the Sun Belt’s top cornerbacks (Jarron Morris) and added a handful of players to compete right away from the transfer portal.

Concern: The Bobcats have a lot of work to do here. The defense surrendered 38.2 points a game and finished ninth in the Sun Belt against the run. Also, Texas State gave up 6.3 yards a snap and ranked eighth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. An improved pass rush (12 sacks in 2020) is a must.

Incoming Transfers: S Michael LoVett III; DL Nick McCann; S Troy Lefeged; CB D.C. Williams; CB Eric Sutton; LB DeMarrquese Hayes

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. South Alabama

South Alabama is a job with potential, and new coach Kane Wommack seems like the right fit to help this program grow over the next couple of seasons. If the Jaguars get consistent play from quarterback Jake Bentley and improve up front, this ranking might be too low.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Utah (and former South Carolina) quarterback Jake Bentley should provide stability and a needed spark under center in 2021. The senior will be throwing to a standout group of receivers, which includes one of the nation’s best in Jalen Tolbert.

Concern: For the offense to have any success this fall, better play up front is a priority after 40 sacks allowed last year. And this unit is an obvious area of focus for the new staff with five additions coming through the transfer portal. The Jaguars also need to spark the ground attack after managing only 2.9 yards per carry in 2020. This group averaged 19.9 points a game and 5.1 yards per play last fall – there’s plenty of room to improve.

Incoming Transfers: QB Jake Bentley; OL James Jackson; OL Antwan Lewis; OL Ja’Chai Baker; OL Justin Stevens; OL Anterrious Gray; WR Allen Dailey; RB Kareem Walker

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Wommack’s background and track record on defense suggests this group could improve significantly in 2021. The cupboard also isn’t totally bare with nine returning starters. Safety Keith Gallmon is one of the top defensive backs in the Sun Belt.

Concern: South Alabama surrendered 27.3 points a game and 6.4 yards per snap last season. Wommack and new coordinator Corey Batoon should bring some improvement, but the personnel might not be there to make a significant jump. The Jaguars need to find a pass rush (just 13 sacks in 2020).

Incoming Transfers: LB Jamal Brooks; DL Ethan Rinke

5. ULM

New coach Terry Bowden has one of the toughest assignments for a first-year coach in 2021. ULM finished 0-10 and was outscored by a combined mark of 420-163 last season.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Rich Rodriguez was a strong hire as offensive coordinator. Also, Rich’s son – Rhett Rodriguez – transferred from Arizona to compete for the starting nod. ULM has some promising weapons at receiver.

Concern: How much can this unit improve in one offseason? ULM managed only 4.8 yards per play and 16.3 points a game last year. Finding a go-to running back and improving the offensive line are two priorities to watch this offseason.

Incoming Transfers: TE Nolan Quinlan; WR Jalen Jackson; WR Jared Sparks; WR Dariyan Wiley; TE Jacob Mathis; WR Jeremiah Knight; QB Rhett Rodriguez

Previewing the Defense

Strength: New coordinator Zac Alley returns seven starters and a significant amount of experience overall going into the 2021 season.

Concern: ULM gave up 42 points a game and 6.85 yards a play last season. This defense gave up nearly 250 rushing yards a contest and ranked last in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense. The problems aren’t going to be solved in just one offseason.

Incoming Transfers: CB Mark Williams; LB Jacquez Williams; CB Jordyn Riley; CB Adam Sparks

Sun Belt Championship: Louisiana over Coastal Carolina

Sun Belt 2021 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS

Offensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Grayson McCall, QB, Coastal Carolina

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Grayson McCall, QB, Coastal Carolina

Pick by Mark Ross: Grayson McCall, QB, Coastal Carolina

Defensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Carlton Martial, LB, Troy

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Carlton Martial, LB, Troy

Pick by Mark Ross: Carlton Martial, LB, Troy

Coach of the Year

Pick by Steven Lassan: Billy Napier, Louisiana

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Billy Napier, Louisiana

Pick by Mark Ross: Billy Napier, Louisiana

Coach on the Hot Seat

Pick by Steven Lassan: Chip Lindsey, Troy

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jake Spavital, Texas State

Pick by Mark Ross: Chip Lindsey, Troy

Top Newcomer

Pick by Steven Lassan: Jake Bentley, QB, South Alabama

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Chase Brice, QB, Appalachian State

Pick by Mark Ross: Jake Bentley, QB, South Alabama

Sleeper Team

Pick by Steven Lassan: Georgia State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Georgia State

Pick by Mark Ross: South Alabama

Key Position to Watch

Pick by Steven Lassan: Appalachian State QBs

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Appalachian State OL

Pick by Mark Ross: Louisiana RBs

Best Coordinator Hire

Pick by Steven Lassan: Rich Rodriguez, OC, ULM

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Major Applewhite, OC, South Alabama

Pick by Mark Ross: Rich Rodriguez, OC, ULM

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Pick by Steven Lassan: Georgia Southern

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Texas State

Pick by Mark Ross: ULM

Coach on the Rise

Pick by Steven Lassan: Billy Napier, HC, Louisiana

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Chad Staggs, DC, Coastal Carolina

Pick by Mark Ross: Billy Napier, HC, Louisiana

Must-See Game

Pick by Steven Lassan: Coastal Carolina at Appalachian State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Louisiana at Texas

Pick by Mark Ross: Coastal Carolina at Appalachian State

Breakout Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Cornelious Brown IV, QB, Georgia State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jake Bentley, QB, South Alabama

Pick by Mark Ross: Reese White, RB, Coastal Carolina

Comeback Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Corey Sutton, WR, Appalachian State

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Marcel Murray, RB, Arkansas State

Pick by Mark Ross: J.D. King, RB, Georgia Southern

Podcast: Sun Belt Preview and Predictions

(Levi Lewis photo courtesy of Louisiana Athletics)