Here are the 2021 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. 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 2021 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.
Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama were the two Sun Belt teams that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record. In Billy Napier's final season in Lafayette, the Ragin' Cajuns became the first team to finish unbeaten in Sun Belt play and win the conference title game. Despite their unbeaten mark, the Ragin' Cajuns were far from dominant, winning five games by one score. South Alabama was not nearly as fortunate in close games, losing all four conference games they played that were decided by a touchdown or less. The Ragin' Cajuns and Jaguars faced off in early October and the final result was a microcosm of both teams' respective seasons. South Alabama outgained Louisiana-Lafayette and edged them slightly in yards per play. In fact, the Jaguars were in position to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but missed a 36-yard field goal with just over a minute left to seal a 20-18 loss.
From the looks of things, the era of divisional play in college football may soon be over. In the three decades of divisional play, there have only been three instances where a the division champ finished with a winning conference record while every other team in the division finished with a losing conference record. Those instances have all come in the past three seasons and the last two have come in the same division! Since this post is on the Sun Belt, you can probably guess which conference is responsible for the last two.
Louisiana-Lafayette has gone 15-1 in Sun Belt action the past two seasons. In both seasons, the second best team in the division finished 3-5 in Sun Belt play meaning the division was decided before many MLB division races. Before Louisiana-Lafayette's Sun Belt dominance, Oregon finished four games clear of everyone in the Pac-12 North in 2019. And while it didn't quite make the cut, I wanted to remind readers of the mediocrity that was the Big 12 North in 2004. No one in that division finished with a winning record. Iowa State entered the final week of the regular season with a chance to wrap up their first North title, but dropped an overtime game to Missouri to give the division to Colorado.