After a bit of a break, our series is back as we’ll continue to recap each team’s season in the Sun Belt. Next up we’ll go down to the bayou as UL-Lafayette is coming off another disappointing year and Mark Hudspeth is out after seven seasons and four New Orleans Bowl appearances.
We’ll recap what was a strange season for the Cajuns and what the future might hold under new head coach Billy Napier. This is a program that is capable of consistently competing for conference championships and now the Cajuns will attempt to climb their way up that ladder.
On paper, it appeared that the Cajuns had some very nice talent especially along the offensive and defensive lines. The coaches slotted them for a fifth place finish while UDD called for them to finish fourth. Turns out both of those predictions were pretty strong as the Cajuns ended the season with a .500 mark in conference place and finished tied for fifth.
The biggest storyline in fall camp was on offense as Hudspeth and his staff needed to find answers in the offensive backfield. New offensive coordinator Will Hall was overseeing position battles at both quarterback and running back as the Cajuns were implementing a new spread, up-tempo scheme. On the other side, the defense had some high upside as they had a ton of experience on the defensive line and in the secondary. However, linebacker was a huge concern and something that appeared to be the biggest weakness on the team. The goal, as always, was to find a way to get bowl eligibility in order to end the season in the Superdome to play in the New Orleans Bowl.
The opener against FCS Southeastern Louisiana kind of told us everything we needed to know about the Cajuns as they would need 51 points and overtime to escape with the win. Really the offense and defense could not get on the same page all season and it started with a rough 1-3 start.
With Jordan Davis behind center, the Cajuns averaged 41 points per game in the first month of the season as the offense was playing at a really high level. However, the defense just could not get stops as each of the first four opponents scored at least 45 points. Therefore, during the bye week, the staff decided to make some changes.
The Cajuns began to slow down their pace on offense and that resulted in wins over Idaho and Texas State. During these games starting quarterback Jordan Davis was out with injury as junior college transfer Andre Nunez and true freshman Levi Lewis split snaps. It appeared like the Cajuns were rolling until they were crushed by Arkansas State in Jonesboro on October 19th.
The Cajuns would bounce back, however, as they would collect wins over South Alabama and New Mexico State in November to enter senior day on Thanksgiving Saturday with a 5-5 record. UL-Lafayette would need to just beat Georgia Southern to get back to the postseason.
Well, they laid an egg as they were whipped by the Eagles and then followed that up with a pasting at the hands of Appalachian State as the defense gave up 63 points. It was a brutal end to the season and it appeared clear that a coaching change was likely to happen.
The Cajuns lost Elijah McGuire to the NFL after 2016 and there was a real concern how this group would find some answers at running back. This offense was going to be leaning on two freshmen entering 2017 and there was no real guarantee how these two would perform.
Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas proved to be an effective duo early as the Cajuns ran for at least 200 yards in three of the first four games. However, Elijah Mitchell was lost for the season in the victory over Idaho with a foot injury. So that would slow the ground game down.
The Cajuns got their act together again in November and a big reason why was Ragas. The redshirt freshman from New Orleans finished the season with 813 yards and nine touchdowns with a 5.7 yards per carry average. Ragas was one of the few consistent bright spots for this football team and he has the potential to be an all-conference back in 2018.
The Cajuns entered the season with seven returning starters on defense and this was expected to be one of the best defenses in the Sun Belt. Joe Dillon was primed to be one of the best pass rushers in all of the the Group of Five while Tracy Walker headlined a very solid secondary.
That went out the window quick as the Cajuns gave up 40 points per game and were ranked as the 125th defense per S&P+. This was a group that gave up 50 or more points four times on the season as they consistently struggled to get stops. The downfall on the defense may be the biggest reason this was a year lost and must be something that new head coach Billy Napier and staff fix right away.
It’s a new day in Lafayette as Billy Napier takes over after stints at Clemson and Arizona State as an offensive coordinator. The Cajuns appear to have some talent in the fold and getting back to the postseason appears to be an achievable goal beginning in 2018.
Mark Hudspeth proved you can win big here with four nine-win seasons and a conference championship. The Cajuns fell on hard times due to NCAA violations and the lack of quarterback development. It will be key for Napier and his staff to find answers at the sport’s most important position. If they can do that, Louisiana-Lafayette can yearly attract enough talent to consistently compete for Sun Belt championships.