Coming off of a 2015 season that went anything but according to plan, the 2016 season is an important season for the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns.
The Ragin Cajuns' recently received news that Elijah McGuire will return for his senior year, but have many holes to replace this fall. They have to find a dependable quarterback, replace their best receiver, and fix a defense that struggled much more than anticipated last fall among many other issues.
At least they have a schedule that sets them up for a great season. Right?
Well, not really. The Ragin' Cajuns have one of their toughest schedules during the Mark Hudspeth era with five teams that made a bowl game in 2015 on the slate.
Let's break the schedule down in non-conference and Sun Belt categories:
Non-Conference Schedule: (Boise State, McNeese State, at Georgia, at Tulane)
The positive way to look at the non-conference schedule for Louisiana is location. All four games are within a reasonable drive for fans to attend. The Ragin' Cajuns get FCS foe McNeese state and 2016 Mountain West favorites Boise State at home. A road game at AAC program Tulane is an easy drive, but a trip to Athens to face the Georgia Bulldogs is a bit of a haul. Still, that drive is a much shorter trip than the season opener at Kentucky in 2015.
Outside of Tulane, the non-conference schedule is full of teams with winning records in 2015. McNeese State, while an FCS program, is a giant step forward from Northwestern State last fall. The Cowboys finished the regular season 10-0, but fell to a red hot Sam Houston State squad in the FCS playoffs. They are not a team that scares easily, taking out MTSU and South Florida in recent years.
Boise State is perennially one of the best teams in the Group of Five. They had some issues defending the option last fall, but return one of the best true freshmen in the nation, quarterback Brett Rypien. The Broncos gave everyone a taste of just how good they can be in the Poinsettia Bowl, absolutely destroying Northern Illinois 55-7. Replacing Louisiana Tech from the 2015 schedule, this game should be a sell out.
With a new coach and several question marks all over the team, this is a good time to go to Georgia. I am not saying that the Ragin' Cajuns will pull an upset, but this is a year that the Bulldogs are ripe to be upset. Still, a much harder game than facing fellow SEC program Kentucky last fall.
One game that Louisiana has to feel good heading into is a late September matchup with the Green Wave. This is a game that the Ragin' Cajuns must win. They will be favored, but you never know what will happen until the game is played. This can be a game that goes either way. Tulane replaces Akron from the 2015 schedule.
Sun Belt Schedule: (Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Idaho, South Alabama, at Georgia Southern, at ULM, at New Mexico State, at Texas State)
All things considered, the Ragin' Cajuns got dealt a tough but reasonable hand for the upcoming season. They get to face perennial rival and 2015 Sun Belt Champions Arkansas State at home. This is a game that the Sun Belt built a bit of its reputation for wild mid-week games on in the past. Playing the Red Wolves is fun because these two programs just do not like one another very much.
Louisiana gets another shot at Appalachian State, this time at home, after last season's debacle. The Mountaineers are coming off of an 11-2 season, just missing out on a spot in the final AP Top 25 poll.
The other two home Sun Belt games, Idaho and South Alabama, are games versus teams that are at or below their talent level. They are essentially must win games to avoid a second straight season with a losing record.
The road schedule is where things go a little different this fall. Of the four Sun Belt road contests, only Georgia Southern had a quality season in 2015. The Eagles finished an impressive 9-4 last fall, dismantling a talented Bowling Green team in the GoDaddy Bowl.
Then you have the other three. Louisiana Monroe is a mess right now, bringing in a new coaching staff and needing to put in significant work to return to respectability. The Warhawks are losing a bit on defense, but have several young players that saw a lot of playing time last season.
Texas State is in a similar boat to ULM. 2015 was a disaster that ended with a new head coach as well. It would not surprise anyone to see the Bobcats improve significantly in 2016, but they are a bit of a wild card until they get some games under their belt with the new coaching staff.
Finally, you have New Mexico State to round out the Sun Belt road slate. The Aggies are a tricky team that have several impressive offensive options, led by star running back Larry Rose III. With the hiring of defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, they could actually surprise quite a few people and make a run towards a bowl like Georgia State in 2015.
Overall, the Ragin' Cajuns have their hands full this fall in a schedule that does them very few favors.