The consummate feel-good story of the 2020 college football season can be found in Conway, South Carolina. It involves a university (Coastal Carolina), a mascot (Chanticleer) and a color (teal) that are basically never associated with dominance on the gridiron. It involves a program with three years of Football Bowl Subdivision experience that entered September with a 13-23 all-time record as a Division I football team. And it involves a roster that celebrates victories with mock WWE matches waged in the locker room, including the opposing mascot being elbow-dropped through a table.
Over the weekend, the green — er, teal — newcomer toppled a Heisman candidacy and one of the nation’s most effective offenses on a few days’ notice after Liberty was forced to cancel its matchup with Coastal Carolina due to COVID-19 issues.
The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are officially the darlings of this strange, strange college football season. They don’t look the part, seeing as many of the players sport a hairstyle that peaked in popularity more than a decade before they were born. But with a 22-17 victory over previously unbeaten BYU in what some outlets dubbed “the game of the year,” the Chanticleers are a top-15 outfit with sights locked on a New Year’s Six bowl.
Seemingly overnight, a team that has never had a winning FBS season sealed the first 10-0 start to a season in Sun Belt Conference history and has a 2 percent probability of reaching the playoff, according to ESPN’s model.
One way to measure the team’s gargantuan leap is with the help of Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, which calculates how many points above or below average a team was in a given season. In each of the previous three seasons, Coastal Carolina was more than a touchdown worse than average. Leave it to 2020, then, for the Chanticleers to be 14.99 points better than average.
This is rare air for the Sun Belt, a conference that is in the midst of its best overall season in recent memory, with the same number of wins over AP-ranked opponents in 2020 as in the previous three seasons combined. By total efficiency, Coastal Carolina is by far the best team to come out of the Sun Belt since at least 2005 and has produced the ninth-best season by a Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff era.
So, how did Teal Nation arrive here?
It starts with a defense colloquially referred to as the Black Swarm, a reference to the color of the uniform worn by the team’s defense during practice and the overall ethos of the unit: to swarm. Through nine games, the BYU Cougars averaged 0.36 expected points added per play and 4.09 points per drive, among the highest marks in the nation. Coastal Carolina held them to 0.01 and 1.55, among the worst.
As BYU’s Zach Wilson learned in by far his worst outing of the season, Coastal Carolina gets after the quarterback. The Chanticleers rank seventh in sack rate and force opposing quarterbacks into the seventh-highest rate of off-target throws.
The Chanticleers wear opponents down in the second half. Only six teams have a higher defensive successful play rate, and only four teams have outscored opponents by a larger margin over the final 30 minutes.
Any conversation of Coastal Carolina must also include redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall, who ranks 13th in Total Quarterback Rating. McCall paces an option offense that scores 3.24 points per drive, the 10th-most of any team and a clip higher than notable offenses like Clemson and Notre Dame. Most of these drives are of the punishing variety, like the team’s 13-play, 85-yard backbreaker against BYU. The average Chanticleer drive lasts three minutes and two seconds, a languished stretch bested by only five teams.
Although it does boast wins over two teams ranked in the AP Poll, much of Coastal Carolina’s success has come against lesser opponents. Its strength of schedule ranks 78th out of 127 schools, and its only Power Five win was against the woeful Kansas Jayhawks. But given the obstacles to finding and playing games this year, that shouldn’t be held against them.
In a season in which the playoff appears destined for the usual suspects — Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Clemson — Coastal Carolina injects the sport with the novelty it craves. A rooster can strike fear into an opponent, and a relative novice can hold the country rapt as it snags the spotlight for what likely won’t be the final time. The Chanticleers showed us so.