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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. 117: Louisiana-Lafayette

Fine. It’s Louisiana — the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. No Louisiana-Lafayette, and definitely no Lafayette, as the university lets you know in big, bold font: We are not Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.! It just feels weird, is all. There are five F.B.S. programs in the State of Louisiana, including one, L.S.U., which is more than deserving of being called Louisiana, don’t you think? What’s next, you’ll want folks to call your stadium the Swamp? Well, about that: Louisiana’s home stadium does go by that title, and the moniker was bestowed in 1988, three years before Steve Spurrier gave Ben Hill Griffin Stadium the same name.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Lafayette, La.

Nickname
Ragin’ Cajuns

Returning starters
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 102

2010 record
(3-9, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 114

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Oklahoma St.
  • Sept. 10
    at Kent St.
  • Sept. 17
    Nicholls St.
  • Sept. 24
    at F.I.U.
  • Oct. 1
    F.A.U.
  • Oct. 8
    Troy
  • Oct. 15
    North Texas
  • Oct. 22
    at W.K.U.
  • Oct. 29
    at Middle Tenn.
  • Nov. 5
    La.-Monroe
  • Nov. 12
    at Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 26
    at Arizona

Last year’s prediction

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. What needs to go right for Louisiana to challenge for a Sun Belt championship? Everything. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The Cajuns did win at least three games in the Sun Belt, but that was all. Rickey Bustle needed to break through the six-win mark to enhance his job security; three wins wasn’t going to cut it. His Cajuns were somewhat competitive in conference play, however, which does indicate that the team really wasn’t that far away from again hovering around 6-6: there were three losses by seven points or less, though two of the three wins came by a single point. So out with the old, in with the new. Bustle for Mark Hudspeth, formerly of Mississippi State, which seems like a pretty good trade for the Cajuns.

High point A 2-2 start. Both of those victories came in Sun Belt play: 31-24 over Arkansas State, 28-27 over North Texas, the latter on the road.

Low point The Cajuns wouldn’t win again until the season finale. Included in the seven-game losing streak were the three narrow losses and four losses by at least 21 points. The worst? Try a 54-21 home loss to Western Kentucky, one of the Hilltoppers’ two wins on the year.

Tidbit A close exploration of Hudspeth’s Twitter feed a few months back found 44 messages between the dates of Dec. 18 — when the account was first created — and Jan. 28; 44 total messages, 41 of which contain at least one, sometimes as many as 10 exclamation points. To whit:

“Happy New Year to all Ragin’ Cajun Fans!!! Hears to a Great 2011!!! Geaux Cajuns!!!!”

That’s on New Year’s Eve, and that’s 10 exclamation points, or one per every word and a half, give or take.

Tidbit (Deep South first edition) We are all familiar with the scars associated with educational integration in the Deep South following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. If you’re not, email me for book suggestions. No school was perfect, but here’s a tidbit worth mentioning. Back in 1954, just months after the ruling and eight years before James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi, Louisiana — then known as Southwest Louisiana Institute — admitted 80 black students, which in the words of one history professor at the school “marked the earliest large-scale desegregation of a previously all-white, public institution of higher education in the Deep South.” I didn’t know that.

Former players in the N.F.L.

8 CB Michael Adams (Arizona), OT D’Anthony Batiste (Arizona), S C.C. Brown (Detroit), DE Hall Davis (Tennessee), QB Jake Delhomme (Cleveland), WR Brandon Stokley (Seattle), CB Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh), CB Charles Tillman (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Jean-Claude Van Damme films from 1993-96
1. “Timecop,” 1994.
2. “Hard Target,” 1993.
3. “The Quest,” 1996.
4. “Maximum Risk,” 1996.
5. ”Sudden Death,” 1995.

Coaching

Mark Hudspeth (Delta State ’92), entering his first season with the Cajuns. Hudspeth comes to Lafayette — the city, not the school — from Mississippi State, where he spent the last two seasons as a lead assistant under Dan Mullen. As Mullen and Mississippi State’s fortunes rose, so did Hudspeth’s. His duties with the Bulldogs included work as the wide receivers coach and as the team’s passing game coordinator, which might mean not mean much, considering M.S.U.’s penchant for running the football, but there’s no discounting Hudspeth’s role in helping Mullen rapidly rebuild a down program in a deep SEC. Hudspeth is not merely known for his work under Mullen: he’s an accomplished head coach in his own right, albeit on the Division-II level. He spent seven seasons as the head coach at North Alabama, posting a 66-21 mark that included a pair of conference titles and five N.C.A.A. tournament appearances. Hudspeth performed a slight rebuilding job at U.N.A., which bodes well for his future with the Cajuns: the Lions went 4-7 in his first season but 13-1 in his second, beginning a six-year run among the best Division-II teams in the nation. Hudspeth’s F.B.S. experience also includes a two-year stint at Navy as offensive coordinator, though the Midshipmen combined to go 6-17 over that span. Despite that hiccup, Hudspeth has tasted near universal success, which along with his offensive background and strength on the recruiting trail makes him a great fit as Bustle’s replacement.

Players to watch

Any offense, whether pro-style, spread or option, would be wise to get the ball towards senior tight end Ladarius Green. He doesn’t just stand as perhaps the best tight end in the country; he might be the most overlooked player in the country, thanks to his spending his playing days in sleepy Lafayette — the city, not the school. How good was Green in 2010? He led all F.B.S. tight ends in receiving yards (794), receiving yards per game (79.4), yards per catch (18.0) and receiving touchdowns (seven). That stands up, regardless of the level of competition. Here’s a scary thought: Green ended the 2010 season playing the best football of his career, with three 100-yard showings over his last four games. He’s a serious all-American contender.

The running game was awful in 2010, but it wasn’t necessarily due to a lack of effort. Louisiana ran the ball at least 30 times in seven games but cracked the 100-yard mark as a team only four times; surprisingly, two of its four worst rushing performances came in wins over North Texas and Louisiana-Monroe. Hudspeth will continue to stress the running game, but there’s an issue: the offensive line is extremely young and inexperienced. It’s the same story to a season, when the Cajuns had to replace three senior starters.

There is some returning experience in left guard Kyle Plouhar, right tackle Jaron Odom and left tackle Leonard Bates, but little depth. That’s a primary concern, but so is locating two more starters to join the above trio: as of now, you’ll see Andre Huval at center and Daniel Quave at right guard, but neither has the type of game experience a coach desires along the interior of his offensive line. Both have earned some praise, however. Huval earned time in nine games as a freshman last fall and Quave came on in the spring as a redshirt freshman, but both will need to thrust into action at least a year ahead of schedule.

Hudspeth has three backs to work with, though the success of the running game will again hinge on the play of the offensive front. As of today, the threesome share top billing on the depth chart. Sophomore Aaron Spikes led the Cajuns in carries (103) and yards (339) last fall, though as those totals suggest, it wasn’t the most productive 103-carry season on record. Also in the mix: senior Yobes Walker, who led the team in rushing in 2009, and sophomore Rob Walker, who rushed for 162 yards last fall.

You’ve never heard of new defensive coordinator Greg Stewart, but you know his work. He was Jacksonville State’s coordinator — had been for 11 years — when the Gamecocks knocked off Ole Miss last fall, and he piloted defenses that kept J.S.U. in games against Georgia Tech and Florida State the year before. Hudspeth worked with Stewart at Delta State from 1998-99, when Hudspeth led the offense, making his hiring a good one on paper — Stewart was due for a promotion — and in terms of the prior relationship the head coach will have with the chief of his defense.

Stewart’s defense puts pressure on quarterbacks, which will play to Louisiana’s strength along the defensive line but potentially hamper a secondary plagued by question marks. It’s not really the starting lineup that’s a worry; Louisiana returns experience at cornerback as well as starting strong safety Lionel Stokes (59 tackles, a team-best three interceptions in 2010). The bigger issue is depth — this is becoming a trend. Dwight Bentley’s the most experienced player in the secondary, a veteran of 32 career starts who brings four career picks into his final season. He’ll team with Melvin White, who has been a fixture on the depth chart even if he holds only a pair of starts in his career. Here’s the problem: Trevence Pratt, a redshirt freshman, was the only other scholarship cornerback during the spring.

The strength of the defense is along the line. This is particularly the case at end, where the Cajuns could interchange five or six linemen depending on Stewart’s mood, I assume. Chris Tucker and Bernard Smith might start, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see plenty of Emeka Onyenekwu, who led the team in sacks a year ago. The same could be said of Justin Anderson, who sits behind Tucker at the other end spot. The senior leader is Derreck Dean, who will team with former L.S.U. transfer Cordian Hagans along the interior of the line.

Look for a rotation at linebacker as well. Devon Lewis-Buchanan (63 tackles, 2.5 sacks, an interception) is on the strong side, where he spent last season. Converted strong safety Lance Kelley moves down on the weak side, giving the Cajuns some speed on the second level, but he’ll need to stay healthy. Two players, Richard Brooks and Brandon Johnson, are battling it out in the middle.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Hudspeth is saying the position is open, but here’s what senior Chris Masson brings to the table: two years of starting experience. If that’s all, that’s enough, in my mind. He’s also the best passer of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting role, even if he’s on-again, off-again in his consistency. If Masson’s the best passer, junior Blaine Gautier’s the biggest dual-threat — and considering what Hudspeth would like to do offensively, Gautier might be the best fit. The third option is Brad McGuire, who played well when called upon against Ohio last fall, but he’s trailing the above pair after suffering minor injuries during the spring. The position battle will recommence in the fall, with Masson and Gautier each making their claim to the starting role, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hudspeth split time between the pair. It would make sense, since each quarterback brings a little something different to the table.

Game(s) to watch

The four Sun Belt home games. One is against Louisiana-Monroe, which will be interesting, with the other three coming in successive weeks to open October: Florida Atlantic, Troy and North Texas. Hudspeth should also focus on beating Western Kentucky; last season’s loss was embarrassing.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Good news first: Mark Hudspeth has already rejuvenated the program on and off the field, beginning with the new philosophies he’s installed on both sides of the ball and extending to the success he has had thus far on the recruiting trail. I do think that he’ll eventually lead Louisiana past the five-win mark that plagued Bustle throughout his tenure; I just don’t think that’s going to happen in 2011. In fact, thanks to depth issues nearly across the board and the inevitable struggles that accompany philosophical changes — though they’ll be good in the long run — I think we’ll again find the Cajuns among the bottom tier in the Sun Belt. What is there to like with this year’s team? Begin with Ladarius Green, one of the nation’s best at his position. Continue with two options at quarterback — while neither is a tremendous choice, Masson and Gautier might compliment each other well in this offensive system. The defensive line is deep, particularly at end. But the running game is a serious issue; the offensive line is extremely thin and inexperienced; there is a dearth of play-making ability at linebacker; and there are holes in the secondary. So this year might not go so well for Hudspeth and the Cajuns, though he does grant the program some much-needed star power.

Dream season A winner on the recruiting trail, Hudspeth is also an immediate winner on the field: 7-5, 6-2 in the Sun Belt.

Nightmare season It takes Hudspeth at least one year to get things in order, as the Cajuns struggle adapting to new schemes in a 1-11 finish.

In case you were wondering

Where do Louisiana-Lafayette fans congregate? Ragin Pagin is the premier fan-run place for Louisiana sports chatter, football or otherwise. You can also check out The Daily Advertiser’s Joshua Parrot, who also has a very useful Twitter feed.

Word Count

Through four teams 9,887.

Up Next

Who is No. 116 Only one Final Four in men’s basketball history has seen two schools have their appearances vacated due to N.C.A.A. violations; one might join the F.B.S. someday, while tomorrow’s team is currently one of the lucky 120.

Update Folks, I’ve changed my mind. Actually, I mistakenly used a cut-and-pasted ranking from last year’s Countdown worksheet. Very sorry to mislead you; Western Kentucky won’t be popping up for a little while, in fact. So here’s the correct hint for tomorrow — and I’ll make sure to carefully proofread so this doesn’t happen again. Tomorrow’s real university recently hired a program legend as an assistant men’s basketball coach; his number was hung up in the rafters in 1995.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Joel says:

    Western Kentucky is next.
    Villanova is the other one…I think it was the 1971 Final Four

  2. wildcat6 says:

    Joel nailed it, and Jim McDaniels was the “ineligible player” for Western Kentucky for having contact with an agent.

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    It is Western Kentucky but I think St. Bonaventure was the other vacated school.

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    Wrong again- the second school was Nova. I am losing it.

  5. tulaneoutlaw says:

    Definitely W. Kentucky.

    Oh and for the record, Tulane was the original U of Louisiana before becoming private (the only school in the country to do so). ULL used to be SLU before LSU made them change the name because they were too similar. Regardless, ULL will always be ULL and LSU will remain that school upriver (at least to me, a Tulane fan).

  6. Ezra says:

    UNLV, Stacey Augmon.

  7. Eksynyt says:

    Yup, it’s the University of Nevada at Las Vegas up next.

  8. David says:

    Navy Midshipmen, not Cadets.

    And, if Charlie Weathebie had let Hudspeth actually run the offense, then maybe Navy would have won a few more games….

    Paul: Inexcusable on my part. I don’t think we can blame Hudspeth one iota for what happened at Navy a decade ago.

  9. Doug says:

    the cajuns used to be SLI, then USL, never was it SLU and WAS actually Louisiana for something like a week before LSU tossed a nice fit about the whole thing and circled the legislative wagons in 1984. After seeing it here…ugh, i assume nothing is safe. Just win and i don’t care what they call the school

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