During the last round of realignment, the Sun Belt lost many of its members to Conference USA and responded by adding several programs with a history of success at the FCS level. Less than a decade later, it’s easy to make the argument that the Sun Belt is now the superior league.
For the first time, the Sun Belt opened the season with a team ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25. And it was two members — Coastal Carolina and Louisiana — that did so with Coastal at No. 22 and Louisiana at No. 23. Coastal had an undefeated regular season in 2020. Louisiana only lost one game — to Coastal Carolina.
The two were set for a rematch in the conference title game, only for it to be wiped out by COVID-19. Those two teams open the 2021 season as the betting favorites in the Sun Belt. Are there any other programs that can make some noise? Or will the Ragin' Cajuns and Chanticleers finally get to play that rematch, and do so with the conference championship on the line?
(All odds via BetMGM.)
Coastal Carolina: +220
Appalachian State: +400
Arkansas State: +4000
Georgia State: +4000
Georgia Southern: +5000
Texas State: +10000
South Alabama: +15000
UL Monroe: +15000
Best bet: Coastal Carolina (+220)
Louisiana has the advantage of being in the less competitive Sun Belt division, providing an easier path to the conference title game. That’s my read on why the Ragin’ Cajuns (+100) are the betting favorites ahead of Coastal Carolina. The two teams are very, very comparable, but I’m going to side with the Chanticleers here — especially at +220.
Louisiana won seven one-possession games last year while CCU won eight of its 11 games by double-digits. Coastal returns almost all of its starters, including QB Grayson McCall and the entire offensive line. McCall expertly runs Jamey Chadwell's unique, option-based attack, and I think he’ll lead his team to another Sun Belt title.
Team to avoid: Appalachian State (+400)
It’s a little scary being skeptical about App State, a team that has won at least 10 games in four of the last six seasons. Over that span, App State’s QB play was stellar. Taylor Lamb, the Sun Belt’s all-time leader in TD passes, started for four years. Zac Thomas then started the last three seasons. He won multiple all-conference honors, including the Sun Belt’s Offensive Player of the Year award in 2018.
In 2021, Chase Brice is expected to lead the offense. Brice had a moment in the spotlight in relief of Trevor Lawrence at Clemson in 2018, but was terrible as the starter for Duke in 2020. He’s definitely in a better situation (and a more comfortable level of competition) at App State, but I can’t put my money behind Brice after what I saw him do for the Blue Devils in 2020.
Sleeper: Troy (+2000)
I narrowed this down to Troy and Georgia State, but Georgia State’s brutal schedule caused me to go with the Trojans at +2000. Troy went 5-6 in Chip Lindsey’s second season, and four of those losses came by seven points or fewer. That included a 42-38 defeat to Coastal Carolina. In 2021, the Trojans have the chance to get off to a really good start, build some confidence and flip those close losses into victories. If Troy does take care of business early in conference play, it will have chances against Coastal Carolina, Louisiana and App State late in the season. The ULL and App games are at home, too.
Coastal Carolina: 10
Appalachian State: 9
Georgia State: 5
South Alabama: 5
Georgia Southern: 4.5
Arkansas State: 4.5
Texas State: 4.5
UL Monroe: 1.5
Sun Belt win total best bets
Louisiana over 8.5 (-165)
I don’t like having to pay this price, but I’m willing to do it with this win total under nine. The Ragin’ Cajuns will be a popular upset pick against Texas in Week 1, but I’m not accounting for a win there when I’m making this bet. There are two other very winnable non-conference games (Nicholls and Ohio) and ULL avoids Coastal Carolina during conference play. Other than App State, Louisiana should be at least a touchdown favorite in the other seven Sun Belt games it plays. That can get you to nine wins right there. The Liberty game is winnable, too. This one feels pretty safe.
ULM under 1.5 (+125)
ULM won six games in 2018 and five games in 2019, but then the bottom fell out in 2020 as the Warhawks finished 0-10. ULM then fired Matt Viator and brought in the well-traveled Terry Bowden as his replacement. It’s a curious fit at a really difficult place to win, and Bowden’s first year might be brutal. The Warhawks get Kentucky, Liberty and LSU in the non-conference and will be the underdog in every Sun Belt game they play. They might even lose to Jackson State, an FCS program that has assembled plenty of FBS-level talent under Deion Sanders. Other than Jackson State, South Alabama and maybe Arkansas State are the only two games I’d give ULM a shot.
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