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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 19 Coastal Carolina is here, ready or not

Kevin Lyttle
American-Statesman Correspondent
Coastal Carolina linebacker Enock Makonzo celebrates after making a play during last season's win over Kansas at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence. The Chanticleers finished a surprising 11-1, the lone loss coming in overtime against Liberty in the Cure Bowl.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 19 Coastal Carolina

The Chanticleers, who have been playing football for only 18 years, introduced themselves to college football fans in a big way last year, rolling to an undefeated regular season before an overtime bowl loss to Liberty. Ready for an encore? Absolutely. The Sun Belt team could challenge for the Group of Six major bowl bid. The attack revolves around Grayson McCall, who as a freshman completed just under 70% of his passes. TE Isaiah Likely is projected as an NFL third-round prospect by several scouting services, and DE Jeffrey Gunter paces the defense. The toughest tests figure to be an early trip to Buffalo and a late October jaunt to Appalachian State before a potential conference title game.

Coastal Carolina wasn't ranked in our preseason poll last year. The Chanticleers finished 12th in the final CFP poll and 14th in both the coaches and AP polls.

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About the Chanticleers

2020: 11-1, 8-0 in the Sun Belt. The conference championship game matchup with Louisiana was canceled. Coastal lost to Liberty 37-34 in overtime of the Cure Bowl.

Coach: Jamey Chadwell, 19-17 in three seasons, including when he served as Coastal's interim head coach in 2017 (3-9)

Returning starters: 20 (10 offense, 10 defense)

Shoes to fill: DE Tarron Jackson (Eagles, 6th round); RB CJ Marable (Bears, UFA); QB Fred Payton (transfer, Mercer)

Catching up

Coastal's most important offseason commitment came from Chadwell, the school's 44-year-old riser in the head coaching ranks. His salary doubled to a base of $850,000 that doesn't include ample bonuses and escalates every year through 2027. ... Only a handful of backups entered the portal, and the Chanticleers will bring in seven transfers led by Georgia Tech DE Emmanuel Johnson, a projected starter. DE Amadou Fofana, a backup at Oklahoma State, and OL Zovon Lindsay from North Carolina State also are part of the group.

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Quarterback Grayson McCall scores on a keeper against Kansas last season. McCall, who produced more than 3,000 yards of total offense last year and was responsible for 33 total touchdowns, will lead the Chanticleers again this year.

Returning leaders

Passing: Grayson McCall 172-250-2,488, 26/3 (led team)

Rushing: QB Grayson McCall 111-569-7 (2nd), Reese White 88-478-6 (3rd)

Receiving: Jaivon Heiligh 65-998-10 (led team), TE Isaiah Likely 30-601-5 (2nd), Kameron Brown 20-306-3 (3rd)

Tackles: LB Silas Kelly 80 (led team), LB Teddy Gallagher and SPUR Enock Makonzo 76 (T-2nd), DT C.J. Brewer and S Alex Spillum 60 (T-4th)

Sacks: DT C.J. Brewer and LB Jeffrey Gunter 6.5 (T-2nd), LB Silas Kelly 5 (4th)

Interceptions: CB D'Jordan Strong 5 (led team), S Alex Spillum 4 (2nd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: QB Grayson McCall (player of the year), TE Isaiah Likely (1st team), WR Jaivon Heiligh (1st), OL Trey Carter (1st), OL Willie Lampkin (2nd), OL Sam Thompson (3rd), OL Antwine Loper (hon. mention), RB Reese White (hon. mention), OL Steven Bedosky (hon. mention)

Defense: CB D'Jordan Strong (1st, newcomer of the year), LB Jeffrey Gunter (1st), DT C.J. Brewer (1st), LB Silas Kelly (2nd), LB Teddy Gallagher (3rd), S Alex Spillum (3rd), SPUR Enock Makonzo (hon. mention)

Special teams: K Massimo Biscardi (2nd)

Coastal Carolina safety Alex Spillum, left, was a key defensive contributor to the Chanticleers last season. He was among the team leaders in tackles and he also picked off four passes.

FYI

How the pandemic affected Coastal Carolina: Early in the season, while other teams sat out, the Chants played and played well, contributing to the catchy Sun Belt/Fun Belt ad campaign on ESPN. Coastal crushed Kansas in Lawrence, beat No. 15 Louisiana and hung 50-plus on Arkansas State and Georgia State. Then on short notice in December, Coastal and BYU creatively arranged a showdown between the unbeaten teams, which the Chants won 22-17, watched by ESPNU's largest audience (1.5 million) in six years. In all, 10 of 12 Coastal games were nationally televised. There was one casualty: The Sun Belt title game between Coastal and Louisiana was canceled for COVID-19 issues at Coastal.

Coastal 4-1-1: Coastal Carolina didn't start playing football until 2003 and didn't become a full FBS member till 2018. ... A Chanticleer is a mythical rooster that ruled the barnyard in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. ... The school is in Conway, S.C., on the road to Myrtle Beach, the campus a mere 21 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. ... They play on the Surf Turf, which is teal (school colors: teal, bronze, black), one of three FBS programs with a field that's not green, joining Boise State (blue) and Eastern Michigan (gray). ... Coastal has been in the sports spotlight before, the baseball team stunningly winning the College World Series in 2016. And PGA star Dustin Johnson is an alum.

In the spotlight: Coastal increased its social media followers by 78% in 2020, according to SkullSparks, a college sports digital and analytics company. That was No. 2 nationally to USC. There's no doubt the football program is getting more looks from recruits with the added spotlight. The Chants have climbed from 8th to 7th to 5th to 3rd to 1st in 247Sports' Sun Belt composite rankings for the current five-year cycle. Their 2022 class is currently ranked ahead of half the Big 12.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Coastal ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Chanticleers ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 18th (2019 — T-55th, +37 spots)

Scoring defense: 19th (85th, +66)

Total offense: 25th (74th, +49)

Total defense: 31st (62nd, +31)

Passing: 60th (97th, +37)

Pass defense: 32nd (T-61st, +29)

Rushing: 15th (34th, +19)

Rush defense: 47th (70th, +23)

Sacks: 24th (94th, +70)

Interceptions: 3rd (46th, +43)

Red zone offense: 34th (87th, +53)

Red zone defense: 83rd (90th, +7)

Turnover margin: 9th (T-61st, +52)

Time of possession: 8th (10th, +2)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 18 team. Want a hint?

This school is coming off a bowl win but is starting over with a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator. Heck, even the quarterback is new.