NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 17: Quarterback Blaine Gautier #17 of the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns looks to throw a pass against the San Diego State Aztecs during R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 17, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Coach Mark Hudspeth could not possibly have made a better debut in the heart of Acadiana. He took Louisiana-Lafayette to both its first bowl win and nine-win season in 2011. Now, with an exciting passing game and a completely rebuilt defense, he goes about trying to do it all over again. Related: UL-Lafayette's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore. Follow @SBNationCFB
They ran the Oklahoma drill on the field before the game.
Throughout the course of a football season, so much feels familiar. Announcers say the same things. Coaches say the same thing. Even with an oddly-shaped ball, we get used to the strange bounces sometimes. We are entertained by these things in the same way that we are (sometimes) entertained by sitcoms. There is comfort in familiarity, especially aesthetically-pleasing familiarity. But surprises keep things fresh. And for those watching last December's R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, a seemingly innocuous game between Louisiana-Lafayette and San Diego State, you were treated to a healthy dose of surprise and unfamiliarity.
First of all, the game was intense. You get used to sterility in your early bowls, but this felt like a much larger game than it actually was. You had star power (San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman, for one), but really, this game was exciting because Mark Hudspeth, his Ragin' Cajuns, and all of the Cajun fans in the stands, treated this like the biggest game in their program's history. Because, well, it was. They ran the Oklahoma drill on the field before the game. They unleashed incredible, unsustainable hell on the unsuspecting Aztecs. They jumped out to a 19-3 lead early in the third quarter, they completely ran out of gas (there's a reason why teams typically don't run the Oklahoma drill on the field before games), and then they rebounded to win anyway, as their place-kicker, who had missed two PATs on the day, nailed a 50-yard field goal at the buzzer.
It was insane, it was fresh, and it was one of my favorite games of the season. (I felt I was doing it a disservice by only ranking it 15th on this list.) It lent all the evidence bowl proponents need to show that, sometimes, minor bowls are a major, significant thing. It was the crowning achievement for a Ragin' Cajun program that has been around quite a while, and it was a treat for anybody who watched. It made me a major believer in Mark Hudspeth; now all he has to do is do it all over again.
Hudspeth appears to be an absolutely tremendous hire for Ragin' University. He went 44-8 in his last four years at North Alabama, and he seemed to play a pretty strong role in Mississippi State's recent offensive improvement. He has extreme familiarity with the region and success in a number of different offensive roles. But here's where I ask the same question I asked of UL-Monroe: what exactly is the ceiling here even if Hudspeth -- an enthusiastic dude, for what it's worth -- is the best coach in Ragin' Cajun history? […]
For much of [Rickey] Bustle's tenure, ULL was a league-average Sun Belt team, but they slipped the last couple of seasons. The Ragin' Cajuns have the second-worst recruiting average in the country, and they only return 10 starters. It's almost a bad thing that so much of the talent Hudspeth inherits seems to come at the quarterback position, unless he is such an offensive innovator that he figures out how to play two quarterbacks simultaneously. The winner of the quarterbacks derby should be a good one, though, and with a weapon like Green and a great offensive mind like Hudspeth, one has to assume the offense will improve. But "improving" in this case just means recovering the team's status as an average Sun Belt team. In other words, 2011 will likely be a baby steps year for Hudspeth and ULL.
And with that, I underestimated Mark Hudspeth severely. After a slow start (20.0 Adj. Points per game over the first three contests), the Cajuns took off, averaging 29.3 Adj. Points over the season's final 10 games. A solid front four gave the defense a push, and the offense surged toward respectability. ULL had won more than seven games just once in their 38 years at the FBS (or Division 1A) level (they went a bowl-less 8-3 under Nelson Stokley in 1993), but they won nine in 2011, including the aforementioned bowl thriller and a one-point win over rival UL-Monroe. Naturally, attendance increased significantly (by 11,788 per game), and the buzz has followed into the spring.
Of course, it was probably a little too good to be true. This may just be me underestimating Hudspeth again, but the Cajuns went 5-1 in one-possession games, and typically when a team improves this much (from 111th in 2009 and 105th in 2010 to 78th in 2011), there is a bit of a regression the next season, especially when you lose almost every starter on one side of the ball. Hudspeth has quickly picked up ULL's recruiting, and to be sure, the offense could be very interesting, but after setting the ball incredibly high in 2011, it might be hard to match that output in Year Two.
With his background, I expected Hudspeth to bring a rather run-heavy offense to town, but really, he did not. With a nice, durable, dual-threat quarterback in Blaine Gautier, the Cajuns passed about five percent more than the national average on standard downs but did run a hair more than average on passing downs. Gautier was perhaps one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country -- he avoided sacks behind a shaky line, and he rushed for over 600 pre-sack yards, but he also completed 63 percent of his passes and threw 23 touchdown passes to just six interceptions. He pulled off some masterful stat lines: 14-for-20 for 238 yards and four touchdowns (and 35 pre-sack rushing yards) versus North Texas, 24-for-36 for 315 yards and a touchdown (and 34 pre-sack rushing yards) versus Arizona, et cetera. And despite the fact that he took almost 10 hits per game just from rushes and sacks, he and the Cajuns' offense improved as each half wore on and thrived in the fourth quarter (which was good, as their defense tended to fall apart in said final stanza). Gautier's improvement from 2010 (51 percent completion rate, three touchdowns, six interceptions) was simply staggering.
Of course, he had help. Receivers Javone Lawson, Harry Peoples and Darryl Surgent and soon-to-be NFL tight end Ladarius Green gave Gautier one of the most fearsome pass-catching foursomes in the country. While many in the Sun Belt struggled to produce even one or two receivers who could average better than 7.0 adjusted yards per target, almost every frequent ULL target did the deed, led by the three receivers above -- Lawson (9.8), Peoples (9.1) and Surgent (7.8). Lawson caught eight of eight passes for 131 yards against Troy and five of nine for 137 against Arizona; meanwhile, Peoples caught 10 of 13 for 140 yards against Western Kentucky. All three return in 2012, giving the Cajuns what is not only probably the best receiving corps in the conference, but one of (if not the) best in the mid-major universe, even without Green.
The passing game, along with Gautier's improvisational ability, should give ULL something to lean on while it attempts to shore up some 2011 weaknesses. The Cajuns ranked 38th in Passing S&P+ last season, but only 109th in Rushing S&P+. The line ranked 114th in Adj. Line Yards and gave Alonzo Harris and Qyendarius Griffin few holes through which to run, but there was no guarantee that the backs would find the holes anyway. Including No. 3 back Aaron Spikes, ULL's top running backs combined to average just 3.3 yards per carry and produce a minus-24.3 Adj. POE, meaning they were about four touchdowns worse than average in their given carries. That's the bad news. The good news: all three were three-star freshmen and should improve in 2012. And the line, which managed the odd feat of seeing the five starters play every snap of the season, returns four starters and a combined 73 career starts. Obviously experience means more when it is good experience, but the bottom line is that the running game should improve, and if it does, then Hudspeth's history suggests he will know how to use it.
Offensive improvement accounted for most of ULL's overall surge, but it did get some help from a slightly improved, opportunistic defense. The Cajuns intercepted 14 passes, broke up another 45 and recovered nine fumbles, forcing almost two turnovers per game. And when they had an athletic advantage over their opponents -- like, for instance, North Texas, which gained just 232 yards against ULL -- they exploited it. There were two problems, of course: 1) They didn't hold an athletic advantage over many offenses, and 2) stats suggest that most of their quality emanated from the line, which must now replace all four starters. Three of the top four linebackers (Lance Kelly, Devon Lewis-Buchanan, Le'Marcus Gibson) have departed as well, not to mention both starting cornerbacks and safety Lionel Stokes.
Since mid-major schools can often fall into the "surge with large group of experienced players, then fall apart when they depart" cycle, this could be cause for dismay. But while experience will be less of an asset in 2012, talent will not. Hudspeth and defensive coordinator have brought in a wealth of one-time major conference signees.
- Darius "Tig" Barksdale. Once a high-four-star recruit, Barksdale signed with Ole Miss but ended up at Jacksonville State, then UL-Lafayette. He is expected to become a starting safety.
- Jalen Fields. Once a four-star Georgia signee, Fields failed to qualify and ended up at Georgia Military College. He should give the line a nice boost this summer.
- Delvin Jones. A four-star freshman on the 2010 Ole Miss team, he was dismissed following a drunk driving arrest. He is expected to start immediately at linebacker.
- T.J. Worthy. Yet another former Ole Miss Rebel, Worthy was once a three-star recruit and should compete for a starting safety job.
- Ryan Mosby. Once a three-star Kentucky recruit, Mosby ended up taking a detour to Arizona Western Community College, then Lafayette.
To be sure, one's star-rating stops mattering when he shows up on campus. But with this infusion, ULL can certainly boast one of the stronger recruiting profiles in the Sun Belt.
Newcomers will determine the fate of the ULL defense, simply because so many of last year's mainstays are gone. Linebacker Jake Molbert (five tackles for loss in 2011) and safety Jemarious Moten (three picks, seven break-ups) are the only two returning starters, and Hudspeth has not been around long enough to build depth the old-fashioned, "recruit high schoolers who start when they are juniors or seniors" way. If the transfers and three-star freshmen like linebacker Tyren Alexander and defensive back C.J. Bates can click and thrive, the defense may not only withstand last year's losses, but improve. That is a mighty "if," however, no matter how attractive those four-star ratings are.
Like most Sun Belt squads, the Cajuns face a couple of sacrificial road trips -- one to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State, one to Gainesville to face Florida. And while large upsets do happen, it is unlikely. But every other game on the schedule is winnable for the Ragin' Cajuns, even if they do indeed stagnate or take a small step backward in 2012. The home slate includes Lamar, Tulane, South Alabama (all likely wins) and interesting contests versus Florida international, Arkansas State and Western Kentucky. Throw in visits to beatable teams like Troy, North Texas, UL-Monroe and Florida Atlantic, and one could easily get starry-eyed about the overall win total. I will remain conservative, however, and say that if ULL can manage simply another eight wins this fall, they will have established themselves as a program.
I understand exactly why ULL is only projected 99th in the most recent F/+ projections. They potentially improved a little TOO much in 2011, they got at least a little bit lucky, and they have to replace nine defensive starters. It is a lot, possibly too much, to ask for them to not only maintain last year's success, but improve on it. But as mentioned above, it is easy to get starry-eyed with this team. That Hudpseth himself returned and didn't get lured away by a bigger program seems like a victory; but combine Hudspeth with a really exciting passing game, young running backs, an experienced offensive line, and at the very least an infusion of athleticism on defense, and … well, there is a lot to like, no?
Louisiana-Lafayette: come for the Oklahoma Drill, stay for the up-and-coming program. And the crawfish.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: