UL's Ragin’ Cajun football team had been waiting for almost three weeks, watching the ebb and flow of the end of the college football season and trying to guess who they’d be facing in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Now they know, and when all of the scenarios shook out, it turned out to be one of the rumored opponents.
The Ragin’ Cajuns will meet San Diego State, the fourth-place team out of the Mountain West Conference, in the Dec. 17 8 p.m. game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Aztecs, like the Cajuns, finished at 8-4 this season under a first-year head coach, and finished behind the Mountain West powerhouse 1-2 combination of TCU and Boise State and third-place Wyoming. SDSU’s four losses came to those three teams along with Michigan – all four of whom are playing in bowl games. TCU faces La. Tech in the Poinsettia, Boise State meets Arizona State in the Las Vegas and Wyoming meets Temple in the New Mexico Bowl.
“We’re thrilled to face a team from the Mountain West Conference,” said UL director of athletics Scott Farmer. “The Mountain West is a very deep football conference and has had teams in the national spotlight all year.”
Indeed, the Mountain West has posted the best bowl winning percentage among all leagues in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) over the last five years.
“We thought they were a possibility this past week,” said Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth of the Aztecs. “They’re an 8-4 team out of a really good league and they’ve had a really good season. They bring a little bit of a national name into this game, so it’s going to be a great game for us to play in.”
San Diego State emerged as one of the leading candidates to play in the Crescent City once it appeared that Conference USA would not fill its contracted spot in the game. C-USA had five bowl-eligible teams, and when SMU ended up in Birmingham’s Compass Bowl in an unfilled SEC slot, Conference USA did not have enough teams to provide a New Orleans squad.
The Aztecs were a better selection for New Orleans than a fall-back team from the Mid-American Conference. Ohio out of the MAC played in last year’s New Orleans Bowl.
New Orleans Bowl executive director Billy Ferrante extended the invitation to SDSU Sunday afternoon.
“We couldn’t be more excited to have San Diego State in this year’s game,” Ferrante said. “We’re thrilled to have two teams that have never played in our game, and we can’t wait to show them the one-of-a-kind bowl experience that only New Orleans can deliver.”
San Diego State beat Fresno State on Saturday in its regular-season finale to post its eighth win.
“I think the bowl did a great job in selecting San Diego State as an opponent,” Farmer said. “They have some name recognition. They’ve averaged close to 40,000 fans per game this year, and we anticipate they’ll bring a good crowd with them to New Orleans.”
The Aztec faithful won’t match the Cajun turnout, though. Farmer said that UL's ticket office went over the 15,000 mark in bowl tickets sold as of Saturday.
SDSU is led by running back Ronnie Hillman, who rushed for four touchdowns in Saturday’s 35-28 win over Fresno. Hillman has rushed for 1,658 yards and 19 touchdowns this year. Quarterback Ryan Lindley threw for 2,740 yards and 20 scores this season.
“We know they have a great running back and a very balanced offense,” Hudsepth said. “They’re a very explosive team, and we’ll have to play very well defensively against a team like that.”
Hudspeth didn’t get much advance notice on the Aztecs’ invitation, finding out just prior to ESPN’s televised announcement of the BCS pairings. The first-year Cajun coach was driving between Baton Rouge and Lafayette after spending the entire weekend on the road recruiting.
“I got a call from Scott (Farmer) just before the ESPN show and he told me it was San Diego State,” Hudspeth said. “The first thing I did was text all the players and tweet all the fans.”
The Cajuns practiced without knowing their opponent the last two weeks, and ironically they won’t get much time to prepare for San Diego State this week. Because of final exams, UL will hold only one practice during the week, that one on Wednesday, before beginning full-scale preparations on
Saturday. That’s only four days before the Cajuns travel to New Orleans on Tuesday, Dec. 13, to begin final bowl preparations.
“Obviously, when you have an opponent, you have more clarity and focus in your preparation,” Hudspeth said. “But what we’ve tried to do is use the last week to work on ourselves and improve our football team. That also gave us a chance to spend time with our younger players … that’s what having bowl practice enables you to do.”
“The best thing for any program trying to develop is getting extra days of practice,” said first-year San Diego State coach Rocky Long after Saturday’s win over Fresno that virtually locked up a bowl bid. “Half of being in a bowl is helping develop younger players, and the other half is the players
come to practice with smiles on their faces because they know they’re going to a bowl.”