It’s the most wonderful time of the year! As we did in 2019 and 2020, let’s take a look at all 42 bowl games, plus the CFP National Championship Game. 18 matchups feature a first-ever meeting of programs.
With how insane the coaching carousel has been, plus the full utilization of the Transfer Portal, we will try to keep up with all of the moving parts and put footnotes for notable players leaving. So, without further ado, time for the 2021 Sun Belt bowls preview!
2021 Sun Belt Bowls Preview
Cure Bowl (December 17, 6:00 p.m., ESPN2)
Coastal Carolina vs Northern Illinois
Coastal Carolina bowl record: 0-1
In 2020, Group of Five programs took the nation by storm. In comparison to 2020, the Chanticleers’ 10-2 2021 mark could be viewed as a disappointment. Starting off 4-0 against non-conference opponents (one against a P5 team…it was Kansas, but still), the sky seemed the limit and they seemed to be building off of last year. Unfortunately, they dropped games to eventual Sun Belt runner-up Appalachian State and Georgia State.
Redshirt sophomore Grayson McCall picked up where he left off. His 2,558 passing yards are good for second-most in the Sun Belt and his 23 are the most. In addition, he completed a whopping 73% of his passes which is also best in the conference. McCall has already been garnering some NFL Draft hype, fueled by his 207.9 passing efficiency rating, best in the nation. This offense is the seventh-best scoring offense in the nation at 40.4 points per game.
His connection with Jaivon Heilligh hasn’t cooled off. The senior reeled in 59 passes for 1.035 and seven touchdowns. His name has been brought up as a receiver worth watching for the NFL Draft. This productivity alongside stud tight end Isaiah Likely (52 receptions, 810 yards, 10 touchdowns) has had defenses scrambling. NIU is going to have a hard time containing the two in this game.
With an exciting offense comes a stifling defense. There has been one outlier this year, the 42 points given up in that loss to GSU, but this defense only allows 20 points per game. On two occasions, Coastal held its opposition without a single touchdown. Leading the way up front is true freshman defensive tackle Josaiah Stewart. The rookie made his presence known in week two against Kansas where he finished with 3.5 sacks en route to 16.0 tackles for loss and a nation-leading 13.0 sacks. The college football world is going to get to know his name very soon.
Jamey Chadwell has his program humming and this year will only catapult them to further success in 2022. Look for Coastal to improve the 2021 Sun Belt bowls record to 2-0 with a victory over Northern Illinois.
Boca Raton Bowl (December 18, 11:00 a.m., ESPN)
Appalachian State vs Western Kentucky
Head-to-head: Appalachian State 4-1 Western Kentucky
Appalachian State bowl record: 6-0
There are only three programs with a perfect bowl record at the FBS level. Only one has played more than two games: Appalachian State. Sitting at 10-3, the Mountaineers dropped games to only Miami (FL) and Louisiana, twice. Those 10 wins came with an average margin of victory of 22.2. Aside from the hotly-contested wins over Coastal Carolina and Marshall, ASU has been blowing teams out of the water.
Both sides of the ball are strong but the defense is where it’s at. The Mountaineers allow just 19.3 points per game, good for 16th in the nation. On average, App State only allowed 0.9 touchdowns per game through the air. This is thanks, in part, to ballhawk senior Steven Jones. Jones recorded a whopping five interceptions, three of which he took back for touchdowns. He leads the nation in both marks. It’s going to be fun watching him against Zappe.
The leader on offense is former Clemson and former Duke quarterback, Chase Brice. Third time was the charm as Brice recorded career-bests in yards (3,022) and touchdowns (23). Many college football fans remember that Brice struggled mightily at his two ACC stops, so it’s nice seeing him get a good season under his belt. Beside him is the dynamic duo of Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples. Noel did more heavy-lifting with his team-leading 196 rushes and 1,074 yards, but Peoples was the one they went to to finally punch it in. Peoples leads the way with 14 touchdowns as compared to Noel’s four.
This game is one of the most intriguing G5 vs G5 bowls you’ll find. Appalachian State has a legit defense but WKU has a quarterback who probably should have gotten some Heisman hype. This will likely be a show of two teams feeling one another out before finally breaking through. The Hilltoppers will be able to lock down a victory, dropping the 2021 Sun Belt bowls mark to 1-1.
New Orleans Bowl (December 18, 9:30 p.m., ESPN)
Louisiana vs Marshall
Louisiana bowl record: 6-2
After dropping the first game to Texas, Louisiana rattled off 12 wins in a row, including two over Appalachian State en route to a Sun Belt title. Seven of those wins were by one score, so while this season could have gone very differently for the Ragin’ Cajuns, they are battle-tested. This game will be a test, however. Head Coach Billy Napier has since left for Florida and will not coach in this game.
Napier or no, this is a talented team. Levi Lewis is a dude and while his passing numbers are good (2,647 yards, 14 touchdowns), it’s the rushing attack Marshall must contend with. Lewis is the third-leading rusher on the team with 269 yards and five touchdowns off of 88 attempts. Chris Smith and Montrell Johnson are the go-to running backs. Johnson leads the team in touchdowns with 11, whereas Smith leads the way in attempts and yards with 153 and 855, respectively. Johnson was awarded with newcomer of the year in the Sun Belt.
The Ragin’ Cajuns boast the 11th-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing just 18.3 points per game. Senior Georgia transfer Chauncey Manac leads a defense that forced 18 turnovers. Manac himself forced a pair of fumbles to go with his 14.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks on the year. Marshall is going to have a rough time getting the ball moving against this defense.
Marshall is a better team than their 7-5 record indicates…but this still feels like disrespect by the bowl selection. Every year, G5 champions match up against middle-of-the-road G5 or P5 teams in bowls. Louisiana is one of the best Group of Five teams in the nation and would have been in prime position to steal a NY6 bowl if Cincinnati had not had a historic run. Give me the Ragin’ Cajuns in this one.
Camellia Bowl (December 25, 2:30 p.m., ESPN)
Georgia State vs Ball State
Head-to-head: Georgia State 1-1 Ball State
Georgia State bowl record: 2-2
Sitting at 7-5, the Georgia State Panthers clawed their way to bowl-eligibility after dropping four of its first five games. In that stretch, the Panthers finished just a game back in the division and outscored its Sun Belt opponents by 57 points. The high point of this year was that 42-40 win at Coastal Carolina.
This offense, on paper, doesn’t flash. That would be because the Panthers are a run-first offense. Running back Tucker Gregg leads the way in rushes (176), yards (899), and is tied atop the touchdowns stat with nine. Cornerback-turned-running back Jamyest Williams has made the most of the transition rushing for 810 yards and nine scores off of 120 carries. And, even though he has 122 rushing attempts and 553 yards with two scores, quarterback Darren Grainger can sling it if needed, judging by his 230-yard, four-touchdown game against UL-Monroe.
The defense isn’t a world-beater either, but it has a ballhawk of a safety in Antavious Lane. Lane backed up his four-interception, six passes defenses, one forced fumble 2020 with the same stat line this year. The redshirt sophomore has made a name for himself in the Sun Belt, earning a 1st team All-Sun Belt selection.
As much as this author enjoys G5 football, this may not be a matchup fans will clamor to find on their TVs. Either way, these athletes are playing for their schools and for themselves. Ball State is a solid team from the MAC and will ultimately drop the 2021 Sun Belt bowls record to an even 2-2 to end the year for the conference.
Top-Heavy Fun Belt
There are only four 2021 Sun Belt bowls this year. Usually, these few are reserved for the MAC but this year only a few teams dominated. Appalachian State and Louisiana looked good enough to compete with P5 programs, even if they would be lower-end. All Hell is going to break loose in a couple of years, so here’s to 2022, the last year of the college football landscape as we know it.
The Mountain West is up next!