One year ago, UL Lafayette’s football team was unheralded, unrecognized and almost unknown in the Sun Belt Conference poll of the league coaches.
The Ragin’ Cajuns were tabbed eighth out of nine teams last August … and responded by improving from 3-9 to 9-4, making the nation’s second-biggest turnaround and leading the country in percentage of attendance increase. And, by the way, they participated in and won a Division I bowl game for the first time in school history, taking a pulsating 32-30 win over San Diego State in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
More respect was expected, and it came Monday during the Sun Belt’s Media Day activities in New Orleans. The Cajuns were picked third by the league coaches, getting two first-place votes, and finished with 81 total points in the poll of the 10 coaches. Only FIU (92) and defending league champ Arkansas State (85) drew more votes in the poll, and the Cajuns were well ahead of fourth-place Western Kentucky (70).
“But we’re still not getting the respect that we want to get,” said Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth, who enters his second season at the UL helm with much higher expectations from the rejuvenated Cajun nation. “We’re still in the 80’s and 90’s in the team rankings, so winning and winning consistently is what we’ve got to do to change that.”
UL did that last year, putting together six straight wins after a season-opening 61-34 loss to Oklahoma State – a team that missed by a few whiskers getting into the national championship game. UL also finished 6-2 in the Sun Belt, finishing third, and went a perfect 5-0 at home including four conference wins.
It was enough for the Cajuns to vault five spots in the preseason picks.
“There are a lot of expectations,” said quarterback Blaine Gautier, who hauled in a bushel of records during a stellar senior season. “The bar’s set pretty high. Last year we were under the radar, but we know we won’t be this year.”
“Doing what we did last year put a shot into our program that might have taken us four or five years to put together,” Hudspeth said. “Winning a bowl game, winning nine games, going undefeated at home … it’s been a big boost.
“And our fan base has never been so excited. Season tickets are through the ceiling. But this is a whole different team, with a different mindset. They have to build on the momentum we had last year, and they know we have to keep building on all that.”
One goal the Cajuns didn’t reach was winning the Sun Belt Conference title. That went to Arkansas State, which ran the eight-game Sun Belt table including a 30-21 November win over UL in Jonesboro that effectively eliminated the Cajuns from the league race. Three weeks later, UL still got the New Orleans Bowl bid (Arkansas State took a spot in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile), but winning the league title now sits as one of the team’s main goals.
“We may have earned the respect of a lot more people, but winning the league is still a goal we haven’t reached,” Hudspeth said. “That’s a challenge. This conference is more even than any conference in the country. Just about every team can get on a run and either win it or finish in the top three.”
UL had five players named to the preseason all-league team Monday including three on offense – sophomore running back Alonzo Harris, senior wide receiver Javone Lawson and senior tackle Leonardo Bates. Senior cornerback Melvin White and senior kicker Brett Baer were also picked on the preseason team.
Gautier wasn’t on that unit – Arkansas State’s record-setting quarterback Ryan Aplin was the league’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year along with being named the QB – but Hudspeth knows how valuable the senior from Edgard and Lutcher High is to his unit.
“Last year he obviously wasn’t our starter at the start of the season,” he said, “and it took a while for our offense to get in synch. But now he gives us the chance to come out of the chute with a lot more potential. He’s a proven quarterback that led his team to a bowl and won, so he’s got to feel more confident and comfortable, and we’ve got our whole wide receiver corps and four offensive line starters back.”
Gautier set school records for season passing yards (2,958), passing touchdowns (23), completion percentage (62.8%), total offense yards (3,444) and touchdowns responsible for (26) as a junior. His 492 offensive yards in the bowl-game victory over San Diego State and his 430 passing yards were both bowl records and helped him to bowl MVP honors.
“We know we can throw the ball,” Gautier said. “It’s going to be important that we run the ball, and we know we can do that. Alonzo is going to give us a lot more as a sophomore and the guys up front are going to be very solid.”
Sun Belt Conference 2012 Preseason Football Poll
As voted by the league’s 10 head coaches, first place votes in parentheses
*first year in league, ineligible for conference title