Here are the 2020 Sun Belt standings.
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each Sun Belt team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games (typically fewer in 2020, although the Sun Belt almost played all their conference games in 2020). Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2020 season, which teams in the Sun Belt met this threshold? Here are Sun Belt teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Using the .200 standard, Coastal Carolina and South Alabama overachieved relative to their YPP numbers. However, both teams went about it quite differently. Coastal was a good team that ended up with a great record thanks to winning both of their one-score conference games. Meanwhile, South Alabama was a bad team that finished with a middling record. The Jaguars were not especially lucky, finishing with an even 1-1 record in one-score games, but they really wheezed to the finish line after winning their first two conference games. South Alabama was far from dominant in those first two victories, being outgained by about .10 yards per play. However, over their final six contests they were outgained by more than two yards per play. Their overall performance was more indicative of a team that won a single conference game versus one that won thrice as many. The administration at South Alabama was not fooled as they relieved head coach Steve Campbell of his duties after the season was over.
What are the Chants of a Repeat?
First off, apologies for the bad pun. As I mentioned earlier, the Sun Belt almost played a full conference season in 2020. The only regular season game that did not get played was between Louisiana-Monroe and Troy. Of course, just before the Sun Belt Championship Game, some positive tests and contact tracing prevented it from being played. As a result, we did not get to see a rematch of Costal Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette. For Louisiana-Lafayette, 2020 was the third consecutive year they won the West division of the Sun Belt. For Coastal Carolina, it marked their best season as an FBS program and cemented their status as one of the most improved teams in all of college football. The Chanticleers improved their conference win total by six full games. In 2019, the Chanticleers won two Sun Belt games, beating Texas State and Troy by a combined four points. In 2020, they went 8-0, becoming the first Sun Belt team to roll through conference play unbeaten since Georgia Southern in 2014. Their six-win improvement is tied for the second largest increase among non-BCS/Group of Five conference teams since 2005 (behind Fresno State's amazing seven win-improvement in 2017). However, at this blog, we don't live in the past. Time marches on, and so do we. What can we expect from Coastal Carolina this season? To help answer that question, I looked at all non-BCS/Group of Five teams that improved their conference record by at least five games from one season to the next. Sixteen teams fit this criteria (an average of about one per season). They are listed in the table below along with their performance the following season.
With a few exceptions, most notably Air Force in 2015, these teams tended to decline the following season. This makes sense. For teams that don't recruit elite talent, regression's pull is hard to avoid. These sixteen teams declined on average by a little more than two conference games the next season. Take heart Coastal fans. Even if the Chanticleers suffer a similar decline, they would still be in contention for the Sun Belt East title in 2021. In addition, while it would be impossible for Coastal to improve on their 2020 conference win total, perhaps they can join the other four teams that managed to hold their win total steady. Coastal Carolina was a great story in 2020 and they should contend for another division title in 2021, but were I betting on the division, I would probably take a look at a team that plays at a higher elevation.