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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 102: Louisiana-Lafayette

If La Fayette watched college football, he'd root for an underdog like the Ragin' Cajuns.

Like Arkansas State, another Sun Belt program struggling to break through the six-win barrier, Louisiana-Lafayette has been able to parlay its relative consistency into a bowl trip under Rickey Bustle, the former Virginia Tech offensive coordinator. The Ragin’ Cajuns have been close, believe or not, winning six games in four of the last five seasons; last fall, a win in the season finale against Troy could have sent Louisiana to postseason play, though the Sun Belt had already reached its two bowl tie-ins with the Trojans and Middle Tennessee State. Last year’s team, by Louisiana’s standards, was stacked. Can Bustle keep the Ragin’ Cajuns humming along at .500 while undertaking this mini-rebuilding job?

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Lafayette, La.

Nickname
Ragin’ Cajuns

Returning starters
13 (5 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 110

2009 record
(6-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 99

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at Georgia
  • Sept. 11
    Arkansas St.
  • Sept. 25
    Middle Tennessee
  • Oct. 2
    at North Texas
  • Oct. 8
    Oklahoma St.
  • Oct. 16
    at Troy
  • Oct. 23
    Western Kentucky
  • Oct. 30
    at Ohio
  • Nov. 6
    at Mississippi
  • Nov. 13
    at F.A.U.
  • Nov. 20
    F.I.U.
  • Nov. 27
    at La.-Monroe

Last year’s prediction

For a program like U.L.-Lafayette, repeating last year’s 5-2 finish in the Sun Belt will be nearly impossible. (Paul’s note: It would have been truly impossible, as the conference moved to an eight-game season after Western Kentucky joined its ranks in the 2009 season.) Over all, I predict the Ragin’ Cajuns to finish either 3-9 or 4-8, with how they play in those road games determining their final record. Then again, I did predict the Cajuns to be one of the bottom 10 teams in the land last year, so what do I know.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A second consecutive .500 finish for coach Rickey Bustle and his Ragin’ Cajuns, who have been nothing if not consistently mediocre over the last half-decade. Not that there’s anything wrong with six wins at Louisiana, another one of those Sun Belt programs offered up yearly to the highest B.C.S. conference bidder looking for an easy early-season win. However, the Ragin’ Cajuns are a bit more feisty than your typical also-ran, as last season indicated.

High point A 48-yard field goal with less than a minute remaining gave the Ragin’ Cajuns a 17-15 upset win over Kansas State. The win, which came on Sept. 12, also pushed the Cajuns to 2-0 for the first time since 1990. Louisiana topped rival Louisiana-Monroe for the second consecutive season, allowing it to return to .500.

Low point One could believe that Louisiana would have been in the running for a bowl bid – even though the Sun Belt has only two automatic bowl tie-ins – with a win over Troy in the season finale. Unfortunately, while the Cajuns were within two points entering the final quarter, Troy went on a 24-6 run to earn a 48-31 victory.

Tidbit Louisiana-Lafayette’s win over Kansas State was only its third against a B.C.S. conference opponent in school history, joining a 14-0 win against Miami (Fla.) in 1929 – which shouldn’t really count in this context – and a 29-22 win at Texas A&M in 1996.

Tidbit (win-loss edition) In its six wins, Louisiana rushed for 153.7 yards per game; committed 10 turnovers; allowed 341.8 yards of offense per game; allowed 163.7 yards per game on the ground; and forced 18 turnovers. In its six losses, the Ragin’ Cajuns rushed for 120.2 yards per game; committed 13 turnovers; allowed 466.8 yards per game; allowed 200.2 yards rushing per game; and forced eight turnovers.

Former players in the N.F.L.

10 CB Michael Adams (Arizona), OG D’Anthony Batiste (Denver), S C.C. Brown (Detroit), WR Jason Chery (Pittsburgh), DE Hall Davis (St. Louis), QB Jake Delhomme (Cleveland), S Kyries Herbert (Cincinnati), WR Brandon Stokley (Denver), CB Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh), CB Charles Tillman (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Most important Revolutionary War generals
1. George Washington.
2. Gilbert du Motier (Marquis de La Fayette).
3. Friedrich von Steuben.
4. Nathanael Greene.
5. Horatio Gates.

Coaching

Rickey Bustle (Clemson ’76), 38-56 over eight seasons with the Cajuns. Bustle has won six games in a season four times with the Cajuns (2005-6 and each of the last two seasons); unfortunately, he has yet to win more than four games in his other four seasons in charge. Nevertheless, this mediocrity is still an improvement over the status of the program when he took over in 2002, as the Cajuns had won only nine games in the five years prior to his arrival (9-46 from 1997-2001). With that taken into consideration, perhaps Bustle’s .404 career winning percentage in Lafayette isn’t that bad. The program’s recent success – or at least its six-win consistency – is an indicator of one of two things: one, that Bustle has the Cajuns poised for a conference title or bowl berth in the near future; or two, he has taken the program as far as he can. As has been the case heading into each of the last two seasons, Bustle’s success in 2010 will go a long way toward determining his future. Prior to taking over at U.L., Bustle spent two separate stints at Virginia Tech (1987-1993 and 1995-2001), with a one-year hiatus as the offensive coordinator at South Carolina in 1994. Virginia Tech’s level of success on offense under Bustle, the offensive coordinator in 1993 and from 1995-2001, was unprecedented. Seven of the top 10 scoring teams in school history come from his eight-year span as coordinator. Even more telling is that Bustle’s tenure at Virginia Tech encompassed successful periods with both a traditional drop-back passer (Jim Druckenmiller) and a run-first quarterback (Michael Vick).

Players to watch

After years of run-first quarterbacks, the Louisiana offense featured a different look last year with junior Chris Masson under center. While Masson is not a statue — 265 yards rushing, 6 scores — he is a pocket passer, and not a bad one at that. In his first year in the starting lineup, Masson threw for 2,406 yards and 10 touchdowns, posting more than 200 yards of total offense nine times; that total was the second-most in Louisiana history. His 222 completions (out of 373 attempts) was the third-best single-season output in school history, only two short of the program record. Masson is the leader of this offense. Keep an eye on Louisiana’s Wildcat package, which can feature fullback Brad McGuire, a former quarterback.

Junior tight end Ladarius Green might be the Sun Belt’s best, at least in the passing game. He lacks the girth to make an impact as an in-line blocker, but Green became one of Masson’s favorite targets in a 33-catch, 533-yards 2009 season. He lead the team in receiving yards, coming on strong over the final two games of the season, despite missing three games due to injury. There are plenty of weapons for Masson to work with in the passing game, such as senior Richie Falgout (18 receptions for 221 yards), junior Pierre Hill (14 for 174), senior Rico Joseph (22 for 178) and senior Martin Miller. Miller sat out last fall due to academic issues, but he posted 37 grabs for 325 yards in 2008.

Sophomore Yobes Walker returns after rushing for 412 yards in 2009, the second-best total on the team. While Walker looks capable of carrying the load, Louisiana will continue to spread the carries around a handful of backs, as it did a year ago. Junior Julian Shankle actually spent most of the spring ahead of Walker on the depth chart, though Shankle (38 yards rushing, 1 touchdown) didn’t do much last season. True freshman Robert Walker impressed after arriving on campus on time to participate in spring practice. Keep an eye on his development, as well as the impact Kevin Streeter, a JUCO transfer, has on the offense once he arrives on campus.

The secondary wasn’t great last year, but it made up for some shortcomings by intercepting 16 passes. It’s never wise to rely upon turnovers to get stops, obviously, so this group must become more consistent in 2010. The good news is that three starters return, including both starting cornerbacks. Junior Dwight Bentley was an honorable mention all-Sun Belt choice after making 58 tackles and 3 interceptions, the latter tying for tops on the team. Senior Orkeys Auriene, who can double at free safety, returns on the other side. Auriene added 45 stops, a pair of interceptions and a team-best six pass breakups. Not a bad tandem, especially for the Sun Belt. Maurice Rolle will be the lone new addition to the starting secondary, but he was very productive in a limited role: 33 tackles and 3 picks, tying Bentley for the team lead. Two junior college additions will push for immediate action: Le’Marcus Gibson will push Lance Kelley for the starting role at strong safety, while Lionel Stokes will be at worst a third or fourth cornerback.

Louisiana will offset the loss of all-conference middle linebacker Antwyne Zanders by moving senior Grant Fleming into his open spot. Good move. Fleming is the clear leader of this defense after finishing second to Zanders in tackles with 89, all on the strong side. Does Fleming have the size to withstand the pounding in the middle? He might not; but he has speed to burn, and will be great in space. The rest of the story at linebacker is more unsettled. Fleming’s move will likely result in junior Devon Lewis-Buchanan, a top reserve last fall, taking over on the strong side. Junior Richard Brooks will push Lewis-Buchanan for playing if he can recover from a knee injury suffered midway through last season. Knee issues also hampered senior Daylon McCoy, though the senior was able to make 55 tackles and 1.5 sacks despite only playing in nine games. Again, if he’s healthy, McCoy will again man the weak side.

Back to that secondary. As everyone knows, an average defensive backfield can be overcome by a strong pass rush. You know where this going: Louisiana lacked the ability last fall to get to the quarterback with any regularity, making only 16 sacks. The Ragin’ Cajuns will need a better performance from senior Terrell Richardson, whose 19-tackle season — with no sacks — last fall must be considered a disappointment. He needs to do more. Junior Tyrell Gaddies played well in a reserve role last year, making 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks; perhaps he can give the boost this pass rush defense. Gaddies won’t necessarily start opposite Richardson, however, with fellow junior Nate Douglas likely starting the season in the starting lineup after missing all of last year due to health concerns. Louisiana added JUCO prospect Bernard Smith with the goal of adding speed off the edge.

Things are a bit more clear on the interior of the line. The Ragin’ Cajuns can go four deep at tackle, with Jermaine Rogers and Sharrick Moore serving in a secondary role behind starters Jordan Topp and Derreck Dean. Topp played pretty well last fall as a JUCO transfer, with even better things expected in his senior season. Topp will team with Dean to give Louisiana two relatively stout defenders against the run, though neither — like the rest of the line — gave much in terms of a pass rush, nor a recognizable amount of penetration against the run. While not particularly strong, the interior of the line is less of a concern than the end situation heading into 2010.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line U.L.L. lost three starters up front, two of whom — center Chris Fisher and guard Brad Bustle — were first-team all-Sun Belt picks as seniors. Each of the two returning starters will remain in the starting lineup, though one will change positions in 2010: Ian Burks will move from right guard to center, replacing Fisher. Burks enters his senior season with 31 career starts, though only one in the middle. Right tackle Jonathan Decoster, like Burks a 31-game starter, is the team’s most talented lineman. Senior Colin Windsor, thanks to his relative experience (seven games played in 2009), will start at left tackle over redshirt freshman Robert Robinson. The real competition is taking place at both guard spots. There are two favorites here, though it’s unknown on which side each will play. Sophomores Leonardo Bates and Jaron Odom will most likely open the year in the starting lineup — both are huge, with Odom’s svelte 340-pound frame probably best fit for the right side. However, don’t count junior Kyle Plouhar, the most experienced interior lineman in the competition at guard. Sophomore Evan Ruiz is another option, though Plouhar is more likely push into the starting lineup than Ruiz.

Game(s) to watch

The season will be won or lost over the last three weeks. Given Louisiana-Lafayette’s deadly midseason stretch, there is very little chance the Ragin’ Cajuns enter their Nov. 13 date with Florida Atlantic anything better than a 5-4 record – and that may be giving this team more respect than its due. U.L. may need to go 3-0 to end the season merely to return to 6-6.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Louisiana will have a difficult time maintaining its current trend of six-win seasons. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which goes from being perhaps the best group in the Sun Belt to, at best, lying somewhere in the middle; if the three new starters cannot gel, especially on the interior of the line, this front could be the Achilles heel of the entire offense. The defense — as a whole — does not look to have made any improvement, trouble for a team that will face an even more difficult schedule than in a year ago. Talking about that schedule, take a look at Louisiana’s non-conference slate: Georgia, Oklahoma State, Ohio and Mississippi. Oklahoma State might be the most winnable game of the four, which should tell you something. What needs to go right for Louisiana to challenge for a Sun Belt championship? Everything. What needs to go right for the Ragin’ Cajuns to challenge for a bowl berth? Better play from Masson, for starters, as well as significant improvement on defense. If Louisiana cannot get to the quarterback — where it struggled mightily last fall — this defense will get torn up by its non-conference slate, if not also by the better teams in conference play. Not to say that Louisiana is not ahead of the bottom four in the Sun Belt; the Ragin’ Cajuns should win at least three games in the Sun Belt. Yet the team trails by a sizable margin behind the top third of the conference.

Dream season The Ragin’ Cajuns break the six-win streak, winning seven games in Sun Belt play and nine over all.

Nightmare season The expected improvement of teams like Western Kentucky and North Texas cuts into Louisiana-Lafayette’s win total, sending the Ragin’ Cajuns to a 3-9 finish.

In case you were wondering

Where do Louisiana-Lafayette fans congregate? Ragin Pagin is the premier option for Louisiana chatter, football or otherwise. Any other sites worth nothing? List them below.

Up Next

Who is No. 101? As I near single digits, the excitement in the air is palpable. Just do your best to contain yourself. Our next university was founded by brothers who had made their fortune in glass manufacturing.

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Comments

  1. Jason Foster says:

    Not to nitpick (which means I’m going to nitpick), but it’s “bowl berth.”

    I’m going to go give myself a wedgie and cram myself into a locker now.

    Paul: Of course it is. Pre-Snap Read’s lone negative: no copy desk. Save the wedgie for your high school reunion.

  2. Jim Narby says:

    i’m guessing # 101 is nebraska

  3. Justin says:

    Ahh so sweet… another narby comment. Just wait for the 2010 season narby, might make you eat your words (predictions). The Huskers secondary could be the best in the nation. Not to overstep my bounds but wait until we play those boys in the burnt orange. Should be a great defensive battle.

  4. douglas says:

    wow, im impressed with the in depth coverage of the cajuns, just found your blog but it is now bookmarked for all eternity, great job!

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