Before 2018, no Sun Belt team had ever finished in the SP+ top 35, but we’ve seen six do so in just the past three seasons. Appalachian State leads the way, having done so for three straight years, but Billy Napier’s Louisiana has done so twice in a row and now leads the country in returning production.
We’re going to learn a lot about what experience can do for a team and its upside this year. The Ragin’ Cajuns have a chance to become the best SBC team of all time this fall if all this continuity produces another gear.
We’re also going to learn if anyone in the West division can even come close to threatening the three-time defending division champs. Signs point to no.
Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, and the MWC Mountain and West.
Matt Viator nearly brought ULM to a bowl in both 2018 and 2019, but an 0-10 collapse in 2020 did him in after five seasons. Now it’s Terry Bowden time.
Projected SP+ rank: 126th
Projected record: 2-10 (1-7)
Likely wins*: Jackson State (83% win probability)
Relative toss-ups: South Alabama (40%)
Likely losses: Arkansas State (27%), at Texas State (26%), Georgia State (16%), Troy (11%), Liberty (6%), at Kentucky (5%), at Coastal Carolina (2%), at Appalachian State (2%), at LSU (1%), at Louisiana (1%)
* Likely wins are games in which SP+ projects the scoring margin to be greater than seven points, or above about 65% win probability. Likely losses are the opposite, and relative toss-ups are all the games in between.
SP+ isn’t built to take Jackson State’s bounty of FBS transfers into account. If it were, that game would not be at 83%.
What we learned about ULM in 2020
Hard jobs remain hard. I use this analogy a lot, but ULM is the ultimate “slowly push the boulder up the hill, slip slightly and watch the boulder run over you on its way back to the bottom” job. Powered by strong offenses, Viator went 6-6 in 2018 and 5-7 in 2019. But a young offense fell apart in 2020, and the defense couldn’t pick up slack. ULM not only went 0-10 but lost nine games by at least 18 points.
It’s Bowden’s turn now. Bowden inherited a rock-bottom Akron program in 2012 and won at least five games from 2013-17. (The Zips then fell apart, and his successor went 0-12 in 2019, but we’ll ignore that in the name of optimism.) He brought another cagey old veteran, offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, with him.
(He went the other direction with his defensive coordinator hire: 27-year-old Zac Alley.)
What we didn’t learn about ULM in 2020
How much potential exists. Slot receiver Perry Carter Jr. averaged 14.2 yards per catch. Center Garrett Hirsch is a solid run-blocker. Defensive tackle Kevin Pointer is active and young. Linebacker Traveion Webster‘s a good blitzer. Cornerback Josh Newton is handsy and physical. Safety Austin Hawley is good near the line of scrimmage.
The cupboard isn’t totally bare in Monroe, and Bowden hit the transfer portal pretty hard for early-impact guys. But even by Sun Belt standards, depth and standout talent talent appear to be at a minimum.
UL Monroe’s history in one chart
Led by former Heisman winner John David Crow, ULM (then Northeast Louisiana) went 7-4 in 1980 before dropping to FCS (then 1-AA) in the early 1980s.
ULM produced two NFL QBs in the 1980s (Bubby Brister and Stan Humphries) and with Humphries throwing two late touchdown passes, beat Marshall for the 1987 national title.
This success convinced the school to jump back up to FBS in 1994. The 27 seasons since have produced one bowl trip and 4.1 wins per season.
That lone bowl season was glorious, though: In 2012 ULM upset No. 8 Arkansas, nearly beat Auburn, briefly deployed a two-QB formation against Baylor and almost won the Sun Belt.
Caleb Evans threw for 2,800-plus yards for three straight years (2017-19), and ULM was bowl-eligible in 2018, but a postseason shot never came. Now ULM starts over.
South Alabama began the season an intriguing 3-2, but the Jags lost five of their last six and third-year coach Steve Campbell was out of a job.
Projected SP+ rank: 116th
Projected record: 4-8 (2-6)
Likely wins*: None
Relative toss-ups: at ULM (60% win probability), at BGSU (59%), Alcorn State (56%), Southern Miss (44%), Arkansas State (42%), at Texas State (41%)
Likely losses: Georgia Southern (34%), at Troy (14%), Coastal Carolina (10%), at Tennessee (9%), Louisiana (6%), at Appalachian State (5%)
Former Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack takes over, and his Jags face enough early toss-ups to perhaps win some games and generate some positive press.
What we learned about USA in 2020
The Jags have some speed on the edge. Jalen Tolbert, one of the best wide receivers in the Group of 5, averaged 17 yards per catch. Young receiver Caullin Lacy has return-man speed and generated big plays in a few touches. Edge rushers Chris Henderson and Shawn Jennings produced high pressure rates. Corner Davyn Flenord was fast and aggressive. Safety Keith Gallmon was everywhere. USA was mostly outmatched in the trenches, and that might not change, but they can run.
There’s potential at QB. Desmond Trotter is inconsistent but has produced a passer rating over 160 in seven of 14 games; backup Tanner McGee hopped off the bench to torch Arkansas State in a comeback win; and to assure a high floor, Wommack brought in South Carolina and Utah transfer Jake Bentley.
What we didn’t learn about USA in 2020
How much a scheme change will help. New offensive coordinator (and former Houston head coach) Major Applewhite spent the past two seasons as an analyst in Nick Saban’s Coach Rehabilitation Machine and will presumably try to turn Tolbert into Devonta Smith II and make heavy use of motion, play-action and RPOs. New defensive coordinator Corey Batoon will re-install a 4-2-5 that USA had success with under Wommack (DC in 2016-17) in the past.
A speed-friendly system can’t hurt with this personnel, some of whom were recruited to play for Wommack years ago. But will solid scheme result in solid improvement? Is there enough raw talent on the roster for a major jump?
South Alabama’s history in one chart
In December 2007, USA trustees officially approved the addition of football. After three seasons as a transitional FCS team, the Jags made their FBS debut in 2012 with Joey Jones in charge.
The Jags were bowling by 2014, losing the Camellia Bowl to BGSU, a game primarily remembered for Jones accidentally getting kicked in the face on the sideline.
An early upset of Mississippi State prompted a second bowl run in 2016; this time, the Jags lost to Air Force in the Arizona Bowl.
Tight end Gerald Everett became USA’s first and only draft pick, going in the second round to the Rams. He had a career-high 41 catches in 2020.
USA opened a sparkly, new, on-campus stadium in 2020 (Hancock Whitney Stadium). Hopefully the school will be able to open to full capacity this fall.
Sure, Jake Spavital’s second Texas State team only went 2-10 last year, but it was a fun 2-10: five one-score games and six games with at least 65 combined points.
Projected SP+ rank: 109th
Projected record: 5-7 (3-5)
Likely wins*: Incarnate Word (86% win probability), ULM (74%)
Relative toss-ups: South Alabama (59%), at FIU (46%), at EMU (40%), Georgia Southern (37%), at Arkansas State (34%)
Likely losses: Troy (23%), at Georgia State (21%), Baylor (17%), at Coastal Carolina (7%), at Louisiana (4%)
Six games are projected within one score. Three of the Bobcats’ five toss-ups, plus the game against UIW, come up in the first five games. A fast start is possible if they win more of their close games this time.
What we learned about Texas State in 2020
Brady McBride is fun and unpredictable. After alternating snaps with Tyler Vitt — due to both COVID-19 protocols and both guys deserving snaps — McBride, a Memphis transfer, caught fire late. In his last three games, he completed 70% of his passes with a 181.7 passer rating. He has a bit of a Johnny Manziel-like wild streak, but he looked awesome. Big-play target Marcell Barbee returns, as does every running back and four starting linemen. This has the makings of the Bobcats’ best offense since at least 2014.
Spavital thinks outside the box. Spavital signed zero freshmen in his 2021 class, instead inking one juco transfer and hitting the transfer portal to fill all remaining slots. He landed well-touted NC State freshman QB Ty Evans, three OLs, three DBs and quite a few others. If Spavital’s gambit pays off, the idea of rebuilding through the portal, and not through five-year recruits, could build even more momentum.
What we didn’t learn about Texas State in 2020
When Zac Spavital’s defense might deliver. In the two years with the younger Spavital serving as coordinator, the Bobcats have sunk from 73rd to 120th in defensive SP+. Key players like tackle Caeveon Patton and linebacker Markeveon Coleman either missed the season or played through injury, so Spavital never fielded his preferred unit. Still, it was dire.
Texas State’s history in one chart
After a solid history that included two Division II national titles (1981-82) and a trip to the FCS semifinals (2005), TXST made the jump to FBS in 2012.
TXST’s first FBS game was also one of its biggest wins: 30-13 over Houston. The rest of the 4-8 debut season was less memorable.
Dennis Franchione’s best team went 7-5 behind a prolific offense. The Bobcats missed out on a bowl bid, though, and haven’t topped three wins since.
The 2014 defense wasn’t very good, but it produced the only two draft picks of Texas State’s FBS era: third-round corner Craig Mager and fifth-round linebacker David Mayo.
After averaging 2.5 wins from 2015-18, the Bobcats hired Jake Spavital to turn things around. He’s thus far averaged 2.5 wins.
After ASU’s first losing season in a decade, Blake Anderson departed for Utah State. With former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones coming to Jonesboro, a new era begins.
Projected SP+ rank: 99th
Projected record: 4-8 (3-5)
Likely wins*: Central Arkansas (80% win probability), at ULM (73%), Texas State (66%)
Relative toss-ups: at South Alabama (58%), at Georgia Southern (36%)
Likely losses: at Georgia State (30%), Memphis (26%), at Tulsa (18%), Coastal Carolina (17%), Appalachian State (16%), Louisiana (11%), at Washington (3%)
With ASU’s lineup in constant flux in 2020, the Red Wolves plummeted to 100th in SP+. Is Jones attempting a rebuild, or a simple resumption of their previous trajectory?
What we learned about ASU in 2020
The offensive potential remains high. Last year’s stumble was due primarily to the defense; the Red Wolves ranked 50th in offensive SP+, their sixth top-60 finish in the past seven years. They pulled it off last year with a QB platoon — Logan Bonner took 288 snaps, Layne Hatcher 231. Bonner followed Anderson to USU, but Hatcher, the better of the two on average, returns.
Hatcher loses last year’s top two targets and leading rusher Jamal Jones, but four line starters are back, and upside remains. Wide receiver Dahu Green averaged 16.9 yards per catch, running back Lincoln Pare averaged 6.3 yards per carry, and Jones signed big-play TCU receiver Te’Vailance Hunt via the transfer portal. (He also brought in former Florida State quarterback James Blackman.) Offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf, retained from Anderson’s staff, has plenty to work with.
What we didn’t learn about ASU in 2020
If there were any worse pass defenses in college football. ASU’s run defense was genuinely stout, but it didn’t matter — opponents could pass on them all day. The Red Wolves allowed nearly 14 yards per completion and finished 122nd in passer rating allowed.
New defensive coordinator Rob Harley, previously of Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt staff, inherits an experienced defense — nine returning starters, plus three veteran linemen added via the portal — and in corner Samy Johnson, he has at least one genuine playmaker. But defending the pass is maybe the most important thing in college football, and ASU was horrible at it despite Johnson.
Arkansas State’s history in one chart
ASU’s greatest season was an out-of-nowhere 11-0 run in 1975. That they didn’t score a bowl invitation despite winning the Southland prompted the creation of everyone’s favorite, the Independence Bowl in Shreveport.
After dropping to FCS, ASU made four straight playoff appearances and lost to Georgia Southern, 48-21, in the 1986 national title game.
The Red Wolves struggled mightily upon their return to FBS, but things began to trend upward with the 2002 hire of Steve Roberts.
Roberts maxed out at 6-6, but beginning with the 2011 hire of Hugh Freeze (followed by Gus Malzahn in 2012, Bryan Harsin in 2013 and Anderson in 2014), the improvement picked up steam despite turnover.
Defensive collapse led to a 4-7 campaign in 2020, the program’s first sub-.500 season since Roberts’ final season.
Louisiana began 2020 by beating maybe the best Iowa State ever and finished it 10-1. Now the Cajuns return 21 starters and heavily sought-after head coach Billy Napier. That seems like a good combination.
Projected SP+ rank: 22nd
Projected record: 10-2 (7-1)
Likely wins*: ULM (99%), Nicholls State (97%), Texas State (96%), at South Alabama (94%), Ohio (91%), at Arkansas State (89%), Georgia State (87%), at Georgia Southern (84%), at Troy (73%)
Relative toss-ups: Appalachian State (65%), at Liberty (60%), at Texas (39%)
Likely losses: None
We don’t know what Texas will look like in Steve Sarkisian’s first game in charge in Austin. We do know that the Longhorns will have to look pretty good to start the season 1-0 against UL.
What we learned about Louisiana in 2020
The upside is even higher than we thought. After winning 11 games in 2019, UL had to replace a large chunk of its receiving corps, offensive line and secondary. It was fair to wonder if a drop-off was coming. It wasn’t. UL fielded one of the nation’s best run games and a secondary capable of physically dominating just about every receiver on the schedule.
The passing game did slip a bit, but UL avoided negative plays, created and prevented chunk plays, tilted the field and eventually ran teams over.
The defense had another gear. Defensive coordinator Ron Roberts improved the Cajuns from 129th to 66th in defensive SP+ in just two years, but when he left for Baylor, 30-year-old Patrick Toney took things even further; UL played the 12th-most man coverage in FBS, rushed the passer from every angle and jumped to 40th in defensive SP+. Corners Eric Garror and Mekhi Garner combined for six interceptions and 13 pass breakups, and linebackers Ferrod Gardner and Lorenzo McCaskill were excellent blitzers and sure tacklers. They’re all back.
What we didn’t learn about Louisiana in 2020
How much further this can go. Two excellent running backs, Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, depart, and while backups Chris Smith and Emani Bailey looked strong in a smaller sample, there’s a high bar to clear. But they’re also almost literally the only contributors to replace. Quarterback Levi Lewis is back, and not only does UL return all five starting linemen, but Napier added rival ULM’s best lineman, guard T.J. Fiailoa, via the transfer portal.
The most problematic units, the receiving corps and defensive line, will be far more experienced, especially with the return of big-play receiver Jamal Bell, who was injured for most of 2020.
Returning almost all of last year’s production and adding more all but guarantees the Cajuns to improve, and UL is projected to jump from 31st to 22nd. But will they hit their potential ceiling at some point? Can the passing game improve, especially if the run game is slightly less efficient? And most importantly:
Can the Cajuns beat Texas in Week 1? They won’t be favored, but they are physically capable, and if they start 1-0, 12-0 is an extreme possibility.
This is going to be a fascinating fall in Acadiana.
Louisiana’s history in one chart
Lots of teams made at least one good run in the 1970s. The Cajuns’ came in 1976, when they went 9-2 with wins over Fresno State, Cincinnati and Louisiana Tech.
In 1995-96, UL boasted both Jake Delhomme (5,662 yards and 40 TDs) and Brandon Stokley (2,281 receiving yards and 16 TDs) — but went only 11-11.
UL’s starting cornerbacks in 2002: future All-Pro Charles Tillman and Super Bowl champion Ike Taylor. The Cajuns went 3-9.
After nearly four decades without a bowl (and one winning season in the last 15 years), UL hired Mark Hudspeth and immediately ripped off four straight New Orleans Bowl wins.
After waning in Hudspeth’s final three seasons, UL hired Napier in 2018 and won seven of his first 15. Since then: 21-3.