The Cajuns Will Have a Better Team in 2012, But.. – From the Bird’s Nest
As the 2012 season draws closer, more and more people are asking me about the upcoming season for Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns. And, surprisingly, most of the fans I’ve had the conversation with agreed with my assessment of 2011.
The Cajuns probably had a better record than their talent indicated.
Now, before any of you look at those words and say “what the hell is this guy talking about,” hear me out.
Sometimes all of the moons line up just right. And, for the 2011 Cajuns, anyone who takes off their vermilion colored glasses will say I’m right with that assessment.
Let’s take a look at those moons….
Now, many fans and Coach Mark Hudspeth himself, will say the lack of injuries was due in part to this team being in great shape. The off-season conditioning program led by head sadist Rusty Whitt had this team in prime physical condition. And, I agree with that. The better the shape a team is in, the fewer injuries they’re going to have.
But no injuries to speak of? That just doesn’t happen.
James Butler went down early in the preseason, giving the Cajuns plenty of time to gameplan in his absence. LeMarcus Gibson went down with a broken leg late. Deep snapper Matt Rosenbalm went down, but John Broussard was waiting in the wings. And, Devin Lewis-Buchanan had the freak injury during warm-ups in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
That’s pretty much it. C’est tout. Finis.
The Cajuns had absolutely no depth on the offensive line. And the five guys they depended on didn’t miss a start. In fact, they played a ridiculous percentage of the offensive snaps last year. You lose one, just one of those guys and that team would have been in big trouble. Ditto the secondary, where Bill Bentley, Melvin White, Jemarlous Moten and Lionel Stokes were out there every night. And, good thing. Because there was little or nothing behind them.
While increased toughness due to extreme workouts played a huge part in the health of the football team, the distinct lack of significant injuries just doesn’t happen very often. And, you can’t assume that’s going to happen again.
If it was close, the Cajuns won. And, again, most will point to the fact the Cajuns were just tougher than most opponents, especially in the fourth quarter. But there are a lot of teams that are in shape in America. Not all of them managed to win all the close ones.
A close win, for the purpose of this story, is one where the victor wins by a touchdown or less. The Cajuns were 5-0 in those games. Only two other schools in America were 5-0: Wyoming and Marshall. Kansas State was 7-1 in those games for a net of plus-six.
That’s all folks.
Fans need to realize those kind of seasons, where a team wins all the close ones, just doesn’t happen very often.
One of the goals of the 2011 Cajuns (and a goal every year under Mark Hudspeth) is to win at home.
And, the Cajuns did that for one of the few times in their history last year. Part of the reason was the record crowds that showed up at Cajun Field to cheer on the men of Vermilion.
Why were they there?
Well, the Cajuns were good.
But so was the weather.
Even in the home opener against Nicholls State last year, the weather wasn’t blistering hot and humid like it was, say, the year before, when temperatures on the field reached 119 degrees against Arkansas State. The rest of the games were the same. Decent temperatures. No rain. In fact, no threat of rain.
That meant between 26 and 32000 fans packed Cajun Field for every home game, which sure makes it easier for the home boys and makes for a miserable day if you’re the visitors.
We all know the perfect weather doesn’t happen often, especially in South Louisiana, where rain, especially early in the season, is common. And usually costs the Cajuns 10-15,000 fans.
JUST PLAIN LUCKY
No one likes to hear a team wins a game because they’re lucky. But sometimes things happen that the winners really had nothing to do with. When you win those, you’re lucky.
Now, I’ve said many, many times there’s no shame in being lucky. In fact, if a team, ANY team, is going to have a special season, there’s going to be a game or two where they got lucky. Again, no shame in it at all.
Last year, the Cajuns beat FIU in a game where the Panthers’ best player, TY Hilton, did not play. And, quarterback Wesley Carroll went down with an injury. His backup wound up being the starter before the season ended, but that game was his first significant playing time. Good timing for the Cajuns. Good luck.
In the miracle comeback win over ULM, the Cajuns executed an onside kick with a little over two minutes left. Brett Baer executed it perfectly. But, after the collision when Brad McGuire went high in the air to knock the ball away from a ULM defender, the ball rolled perfectly down the sideline and never took the bounce that would have sent it out of bounds and given ULM the ball, and the win.
And, in the heart-stopping win over San Diego State, let’s all remember Baer got his chance after SDSU was called for illegal stemming, a call you almost never see on a violation that rarely gets called. We’ll never know if Baer would have connected from 55 yards or not. What we do know is, thanks to a little luck, he didn’t have to try it from there.
There you go. Three wins where lady luck smiled on the Cajuns. You think you’d have been as happy if the Cajuns had been 6-7? That’s provided they even got the bowl bid at 6-6.
Embrace the luck. It’s part of what makes you good.
So, in order to start talking about 2012, you have to go back and break down 2011. I can’t simply assume the Cajuns will go injury free, win every close game, have the perfect weather that means more record crowds and have some luck along the way.
If it happens, that’s great. But the odds are against it.
In his 2012 Preview Magazine, Phil Steele had an interesting statistic: In the last ten seasons, there were 145 teams that had three or more net close wins in a season (Now, remember, the Cajuns had five close wins last year.) In the following season, of those 145 teams, 114 had an equal or worse record the following year.
I’ll do the math for you. That’s over 78 percent.
Teams that had either four or five close net wins had an even tougher time improving on that record. A total of 48 teams fell into that category. And, 40 of them did not improve their record. That’s 83.3 percent.
By the way, the other statistic one has to look at when looking at last year vs. this year is turnover margin. It really wasn’t a factor last year. The Cajuns forced 23 turnovers and lost 23 turnovers…a net of zero.
Fans believe the Cajuns are going to have a better football team in 2012. And, I’m in total agreement. The Cajuns know Blaine Gautier is the starting quarterback, something they didn’t know until week four last year. The Cajuns have more depth on the offensive line and that means they’ll run the football better (an absolute necessity.) The receiving corps is deep and talented. And while the Cajuns will miss Ladarius Green immensely, the Cajuns have capable, albeit a different type of tight ends.
On defense, again, better depth will be a key. There are more talented players on the defensive side of the football, collectively speaking, than last year. Some of the newcomers will step in and be key players. The Cajuns will have some depth at linebacker they really didn’t have a year ago. They’ll be deep again on the defensive line and should do a better job of getting to the quarterback this year. The secondary has more numbers, although Bentley leaves some huge shoes to try and fill.
Baer returns to handle punting and kicking chores. Darryl Surgent is one of the best return men in the Sun Belt. And, the increased talent level throughout the team should make kick coverage, a real bane last year, considerably better.
Fans are going to enjoy watching this team play again this year. They’re going to score points, and at times they’re going to score them in bunches. Defensively, there’s more depth and speed. Special teams will be solid.
Yes, this 2012 Louisiana football team is going to be a better team than what we saw during an unbeaten season last year at Cajun Field.
However, that doesn’t mean they’ll have a better, or even the same, record.
Not unless those moons stay aligned, Mother Nature cooperates and Lady Luck is smiling wider than ever.
Prediction: 7-5, with another trip to New Orleans in the Cajuns’ future.