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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.