This preview originally published February 13 and has since been updated.
It’s a cruel game, really. The better a Group of 5 team performs on the field, the more we talk about the team’s coach leaving. The team’s fans are simply trying to enjoy the present tense, and we end up talking about their miserable future.
College football’s mid-major conferences tend to serve as incubators for a lot of guys who will eventually lead power programs. Urban Meyer got his start at Bowling Green, then spent a couple of years at pre-Pac-12 Utah before getting his golden ticket at Florida. Brian Kelly led Central Michigan for three years and won 33 games in three years at Cincinnati before going to Notre Dame. Willie Taggart resurrected Western Kentucky and USF before taking the Oregon job. Et cetera.
For a while, it looked like Mark Hudspeth was a slam-dunk future power-conference guy. He took over at Louisiana-Lafayette in 2011 and coaxed a high level out of a program that always seemed to have potential but had never lived up to it.
Since joining the Division I level in 1973, the Ragin’ Cajuns had established an incredible level of consistent mediocrity.
They had rarely been awful but had almost never been good. In nearly 40 years pre-Hud, they had won more than seven games just twice. Despite access to a solid base of Louisiana talent, the Cajuns had never bowled.
In six years under Hudspeth, they've won 46 games and bowled five times. They've gone 9-4 with New Orleans Bowl wins four times. Hudspeth's won more games in six years than predecessor Rickey Bustle won in nine. Nelson Stokely won 62 games in 13 years; Hudspeth could pass that within nine.
He's slowed down, though. Those four nine-win seasons came in his first four years. UL's average S&P+ ranking during that period: 81.3. The Cajuns peaked at 55th overall in 2014, and their offense ranked 52nd or better in Off. S&P+ twice.
The last two years:
- 4-8 and 112th overall in 2015 (109th on offense)
- 6-7 and 102nd overall in 2016 (118th on offense)
In two years, UL barely won more games (10) than it was averaging under Hudspeth before that. The Cajuns have misplaced their offensive identity, eking out a 2016 bowl bid because of defense. They also took a hit from the NCAA for academic misdeeds.
We’re not talking Hud for Power 5 anymore, in other words.
Still, the team did rebound after 2015’s collapse. And they did it mostly because of a defense that returns exciting pieces. The offense is rebuilding, but it was already pretty bad, so that might not be incredibly costly. And if new blood turns out to be a good thing on O, further improvement could still be on the table.
The schedule is unforgiving, however, with road trips to Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Tulsa, and Sun Belt heavyweight Appalachian State. That means the Cajuns will probably have to win six of the other eight games to reach a sixth bowl in seven years. But they’ll have a shot at it.
Only having a shot at a bowl and not heading into the season as a conference favorite? The reason that feels underwhelming is because of the expectations Hudspeth himself set. UL’s prospects are interesting right now — better than they were pre-Hud, but worse than they were two or three years ago. That appears to be the secret to keeping a coach long-term at this level.
2016 in review
Granted, it resulted in the program’s first New Orleans Bowl loss, but if an actual program turnaround (or turnbackaround, I guess) began last season, it began late. The Cajuns’ defense was good from nearly start to finish, but the offense showed at least a few signs of life in November, and it was enough to salvage a bowl bid.
- First 8 games (3-5) — Yards per play: Opp 5.2, UL 4.9 | Performance vs. S&P+ projection: -6.7 PPG
- Next 4 games (3-1) — Yards per play: UL 5.6, Opp 5.2 | Performance vs. S&P+ projection: +7.2 PPG
After a 23-13 home dud against Idaho, the Cajuns averaged 7 yards per play in a 33-26 win over Georgia Southern, averaged 6.6 in a competitive loss to Georgia, and produced maybe their best passing day of the year in a 24-19 upset of Arkansas State.
(The offense did next to nothing in the regular season finale against ULM, but it didn't need to. Two fumble return touchdowns gave the Cajuns a 21-3 lead in the second quarter, and they went on cruise control.)
This was a bowl team because of the defense: UL ranked 34th in Rushing S&P+ and 20th in rushing success rate allowed. But we got a pretty good read of where the offense's bar needs to be set for this to be a bowl-caliber team.
The Cajuns head into 2017 tasked with replacing their starting quarterback, their second-leading all-time rusher, two of their top three receivers, and their best offensive lineman. And they’ve got a new coordinator. From a projections standpoint, the effect is obvious. But when the offense is as bad as UL’s was for much of the season, a transfusion isn’t the scariest thought, even after late-year improvement.
Even when the Cajuns’ offense was good in 2016, it wasn’t particularly good. During UL’s 3-1 regular-season finish, Jorge Munoz’s offense was still averaging below the national average in yards per play, and UL still finished with the 11th-worst Off. S&P+ rating in the country.
To his credit, Hudspeth knew he needed to make a change. Munoz moved back to receivers coach. In his place at coordinator: former West Georgia head coach Will Hall.
Here are some basics about Hall’s UWG offense in 2016:
- The Wolves averaged 6 yards per play at the Division II level. Counting sacks as pass attempts, they rushed 53 percent of the time and threw 47 percent.
- UWG quarterbacks (including Louisville transfer Will Gardner) combined to complete 53 percent of their passes at a pretty explosive 14 yards per completion, with 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
- The passing game basically consisted of two possession guys (Qa Walker and Thomas Lester caught 60 passes at 13.1 yards per catch) and two big-play guys (Deniko Carter and K.J. Parmer caught 37 at 17.4 per).
- A trio of running backs averaged 26 carries per game and 6.3 yards per carry.
UWG had a solid run game and an all-or-nothing passing game. The “all” might be pretty attractive to Hudspeth because UL had fewer “alls” than most of the teams in the Sun Belt.
UL had the second-worst IsoPPP average in the conference. The Cajuns had just 45 gains of 20-plus yards last year, 114th in the country. Meanwhile, they managed just two 30-plus rushes all season. And that was with LSU graduate transfer Anthony Jennings at quarterback as a 2016 stopgap. Jennings averaged 5.4 yards per carry (not including sacks), but the Cajuns still couldn't get star Elijah McGuire into the open field as much as they wanted to.
Now McGuire and Jennings are both gone, leaving some interesting athletes and almost no proven play-making ability. At quarterback, Jordan Davis has been a backup for a couple of years, and Dion Ray found a niche in rushing situations in 2017. At running back, sophomore Jordan Wright* and senior Darius Hoggins took most of the backup carries; Hoggins and another sophomore, Raymond Calais, each averaged over 5 yards per carry while Wright mostly struggled.
There is athleticism here: Ray was a mid-three-star recruit, and Wright, freshman quarterback Levi Lewis, and freshman running back Trey Ragas* were all three-stars as well. And the offensive line is certainly experienced — center Eddie Gordon is gone, but seven players with starting experience return.
Still, UL has gone from having a couple of knowns in the backfield to having none.
The good news is, there should indeed be some "alls" in the passing game. Slot receiver and McGuire, the No. 1 and 3 targets last year, are gone, but SMU transfer Ryheem Malone should be able to provide competency in the slot. That could allow two big-play guys to get downfield.
Junior Keenan Barnes and sophomore Ja'Marcus Bradley combined to average 15.2 yards per catch with a 55 percent catch rate last year. The return of Devin Scott (12 catches, 202 yards in 2015) from injury might add some more pop, too, and perhaps the biggest get in the 2017 recruiting haul was tight end Chase Rogers.
There's potential in the aerial attack, but UL will desperately need run game competence for the pass to blossom.
That UL produced its best defense of the Hudspeth era in 2016 was ... unlikely. The Cajuns were 113th in Def. S&P+ in 2015, and Hudspeth fired second-year coordinator Melvin Smith just one game into 2016 (that game: a 45-10 loss to Boise State in which the Broncos averaged 8 yards per play).
Mike Lucas, former DC at Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana, stepped in as interim in week two and turned things around dramatically. After a defensive percentile performance of just 3 percent in Week 1, the Cajuns hit 50 percent or higher six times and finished 68th in Def. S&P+ and 34th in Rushing S&P+.
Lucas was made the full-time DC in December, and he's got a good news, bad news situation.
- Good news: Seven of the top eight defensive linemen and six of the top eight defensive backs return. Generally speaking, continuity in these two levels of the defense matter more than continuity at linebacker, where the Cajuns experience some turnover.
- Bad news: The top three linebackers are gone, and the two starters were particularly good. Tre'maine Lightfoot and Otha Peters not only combined for 20 percent of UL's tackles but also combined for 18 tackles for loss, four sacks, four breakups, and four forced fumbles.
Lightfoot and Peters swarmed the line of scrimmage and powered UL's excellent run defense. Replacements like T.J. Posey and Alonzo Brown have clear athleticism, but there will almost undoubtedly be a drop-off at linebacker, which will put a bit more pressure on the front and back of the defense.
The line in particular might be up to the challenge, though. Sophomore bandit end Joe Dillon* (12.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) was an excellent freshman pass rusher, and five other returning linemen recorded at least three tackles for loss. Senior tackles Taboris Lee and Kevon Perry (combined: 11.5 TFLs, 4 sacks) are strong, and there’s some exciting youth, in guys like sophomore bandit Terrence Jones and freshman tackle Zi’Yon Hill.
The secondary has a bit more to prove. Even with incredible linebacker play and a solid pass rush, the Cajuns allowed a passer rating of 150-plus on four occasions. Granted, three of the four came in the first month of the year (Boise State, South Alabama, Tulane), and the fourth was against an SEC team (Georgia). Still, UL ranked just 105th in Passing S&P+, 103rd on passing downs.
In all, the 10 spots on the two-deep in the back could feature up to seven seniors, and two seasoned safeties lead the way. Travis Crawford and Tracy Walker combined for 3.5 TFLs, four picks, and five breakups. Plus, sophomore nickel back Damar'ren Mitchell* seems to have potential despite being a bit undersized (5'11, 185).
UL has ranked in the top 35 in Special Teams S&P+ in two of the last three years, and all the key players are back from last year's No. 35 unit. Punter Steven Coutts (44.1 average) has a massive leg, and place-kicker Steve Artigue has range into the 40s. They were good enough that UL ranked 35th despite having maybe the least effective kick returns in the country. Shore up the return game, and this is a potential top-20 unit.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|16-Sep||at Texas A&M||19||-28.9||5%|
|11-Nov||at Ole Miss||26||-26.3||6%|
|TBA||New Mexico State||124||6.4||64%|
|TBA||at Appalachian State||62||-18.2||15%|
|TBA||at Arkansas State||83||-10.0||28%|
|TBA||at South Alabama||108||-4.2||41%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||112|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||128 / 62|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-8.4 (102)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||116 / 98|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||1 / 5.2|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||-1.6|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||54% (40%, 69%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||6.0 (0.0)|
If UL can establish a run game, it's easy to talk yourself into the rest of this team. The passing game has plenty of potential, and the defense has athleticism in the front and lots of experience in the back. Throw in a good special teams unit, and you've got a team that can theoretically win a lot of games in the Sun Belt.
The schedule really is an issue, though. S&P+ is bearish on UL because of the offense anyway, and the road slate is brutal: The Cajuns are given a 5 percent chance against Texas A&M, 6 percent against Ole Miss, 15 against Appalachian State, 23 against Tulsa, and 28 against Arkansas State. They also have to go to South Alabama (41 percent) and Idaho (46).
That is about as rough a schedule as you can have as a Sun Belt team. Even with likely wins against SELA, NMSU, Texas State, and ULM, the Cajuns will have to pull an upset or two to get back to the postseason. They certainly can, but that doesn't mean they will.
* Update: These players were among the 13 who were suspended in April over dorm room theft charges.