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Football:Sun Belt Conference football predictions: Ragin’ Cajuns, Chanticleers are favorites

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, August 31, 2021

The Sun Belt Conference opens the 2021 season with two nationally ranked teams, No. 23 UL and No. 24 Coastal Carolina.

The two were to have played in last season’s Sun Belt Championship game, but it was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak within Coastal’s program.

The Ragin’ Cajuns and Chanticleers are favorites for title-game tickets again. Here’s why, along with some Sun Belt standings predictions:



Prediction: West winner

Here’s why: The Cajuns lost only two starters, running back Elijah Mitchell and outside linebacker Joe Dillon. Losing running back Trey Ragas, was another big blow. But with speedster Chris Smith assuming the No. 1 role, starting quarterback Levi Lewis returning, UL’s starting offensive line staying intact and all its top receivers back too, Billy Napier has a loaded offense to pair with a stout defense.


Prediction: Second in the West

Here’s why: Coach Blake Anderson and quarterback Logan Bonner left for Utah State. Top rusher Jamal Jones is done. But whether Layne Hatcher, who shared duties last season with Bonner, or Florida State transfer James Blackman holds down the QB job, the Red Wolves should be in good hands as former Tennessee coach Butch Jones tries getting Arkansas State back to usual winning ways. The return of running back Marcel Murray, limited by injury to five 2020 games, helps too. But a defense needing work could keep A-State from loosening UL’s three-season grip atop the West.

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Prediction: Third in the West

Here’s why: The Jaguars have a new quarterback, South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley, and arguably the conference’s top pass-catcher, Jalen Tolbert (64 catches, 1,085 yards last season). Receiver Jalen Wayne returns too, giving new offensive coordinator Major Applewhite real weapons. Former defensive coordinator Kane Wommack returns as coach after a stint as Indiana’s defensive coordinator, and his 4-2-5 scheme can be a difference-maker.


Prediction: Fourth in the West

Here’s why: It all starts at quarterback and the Bobcats have no clear-cut one with returning Memphis transfer Brady McBride having spent much of the preseason battling Tyler Vitt and North Carolina State transfer Ty Evans. Returning receiver Marcell Barbee and running backs Brock Sturges, Calvin Hill and Jahmyl Jeter help, but the offensive line needs improvement and Jake Spavital needs more answers on defense after going 5-19 in 2019-20.


Prediction: Last in the West

Here’s why: Terry Bowden is undertaking a major reclamation project in his first year. New offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez brought his son, Arizona graduate transfer Rhett Rodriguez, to compete for the No. 1 quarterback job. But with top 2020 rusher Josh Johnson lost from an 0-10 team that averaged only 16.3 points per game the rebuild could be rough.



Prediction: East winner

Here’s why: The Chanticleers lose top rusher C.J. Marable, but Jamey Chadwell returns the rest of the starting offense, including their quarterback, Sun Belt preseason Offensive Player of the Year C.J. McCall, and productive receiver Jaivon Heiligh. Losing end Tarron Jackson hurts, but with pass rushers Jeffrey Gunter and C.J. Brewer, linebackers Silas Kelly and Teddy Gallagher and cornerback D’Jordan Strong back the defense remains solid.


Prediction: Second in the East

Here’s why: Losing longtime quarterback Zac Thomas hurts the Mountaineers, especially early on as former Duke QB/ex-Clemson backup Chase Brice learns to work with a new offense that does return reliable receivers Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams. App State hosts Coastal Carolina on Oct. 20, but not even the high ground of Boone, North Carolina, may be enough for a defense led by Demetrius Taylor up front and Shaun Jolly on the back end to slow McCall and the Chanticleers.


Prediction: Third in the West

Here’s why: The Panthers are motivated to make a fourth bowl trip in five seasons. They return quarterback Cornelius Brown IV, receivers Sam Pickney and Cornelius Brown and running back Destin Coates, but facing the Chanticleers and Cajuns on the road doesn’t make things easy.


Prediction: Fourth in the West

Here’s why: Former Missouri transfer Taylor Powell won the No. 1 quarterback job after battling 2020 starter Gunnar Watson, giving the Trojans newfound pocket mobility that could help Chip Lindsey escape the hot seat after back-to-back losing seasons. With Lindsey motivated to make a bowl and Sun Belt preseason Defensive Player of the Year Carlton Martial calling shots at Mike linebacker, Troy could surprise conference coaches who picked them last in the East


Prediction: Last in the East

Here’s why: The Eagles lost Shai Werts to Louisville and moved Georgia Tech transfer James Graham to receiver, leaving freshman quarterback Cam’Ron Ransom to run the modern triple-option offense before Justin Tomlin becomes eligible after two games. It’s a tough way to start.