UL Football – Expectations…and Lots of Questions – From the Bird’s Nest
Back in July, the Sun Belt Conference released it's preseason coaches' prediction of how the conference race should play out.
With so many starters returning on both sides of the football and the preseason Player of the Year returning at quarterback, it isn't a surprise Louisiana-Monroe was at the top of the coaches' list.
But it was a bit of a surprise, with questions abounding on defense and the kicking game, that Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns were named as the co-favorites.
As season three of the Mark Hudspeth era gets ready to begin, excitement and expectations are higher than ever among the Cajun faithful. And, that's a good thing. Season ticket sales are at an all-time high. So are contributions to the Ragin' Cajuns Athletic Foundation. Construction of Tier one of the Master Plan for Athletics Facilities has been approved by the folks in Baton Rouge.
And, on top of that, the Cajuns are undefeated so far.
But, the realist will tell you there a lot of questions that have to be answered in a positive way in order for the coaches' prediction, and the team's goal of a Sun Belt championship to materialize. A LOT of questions.
While you're planning for the Cajuns' being in a BCS Bowl, consider these things.
1. This team just might be downright offensive:
The word potential means it has yet to materialize, but even the "glass is half empty" Cajun fan will have to admit this could be the best offense the Cajuns have ever put on the field. The offensive line, led by senior center Andre Huval, will be solid. And, for the first time since Bill Clinton was president, there actually might be some really good depth there. The Cajuns might not have a 1,000 yard rusher this year, but it will only be because of the depth at that position. Tight end is a weapon. There's experience in the first group of wide receivers...and there is really, really good talent behind them.
And, Terrance Broadway is the quarterback.
The Baton Rouge junior set a school record for total offense last year. And, he only started eight games. And now, Broadway enters the season knowing he's "the guy" and has planned accordingly. Broadway has a strong arm. Broadway is athletic. Broadway is cerebral. And, when you have a guy like that under center, you're going to win football games.
Here's the reason to get nervous. Since 2003, when the Cajuns went with mobile quarterbacks (Babb, Desormeaux, Masson, Gauthier), no Cajuns starting quarterback has made it through a season without missing a start.
If that happens this year, the Cajuns have exactly no quarterbacks who have taken a snap in a college football game. Brooks Haack is the #1 backup. He and D'Shaie Landor, along with Jalen Nixon have real talent. And absolutely no experience. If the Cajuns are going to meet expectations, #8 needs to stay vertical.
2. Have the questions on defense been answered?
This team is building quality depth on defense. That was obvious last year on the defensive front. And, Hudspeth likes the depth this year at linebacker and the defensive backfield. New defensive coordinator James Willis likes his group of guys.
But experience is a factor here. The Cajuns should be fine on the defensive line, although they aren't nearly as deep as they were a year ago. The rest of the defense has questions. Justin Anderson is an all-league linebacker. And in the supporting cast, there are players like Boris Anyama, Andrew Hebert, Jake Molbert and Trae Johnson who have played some. But Molbert is coming off an injury, Hebert is moving back to defense from tight end and Johnson needs to be more consistent. This unit has a chance to be good, but the guys who start on either side of Anderson need to step their game up.
Safeties Rodney GIllis and Trevence Patt are back for the Cajuns. That's the good news. The starting corners, however, Cedric Tillman and Corey Trim, have yet to play a snap at the FBS level. Both are highly rated junior college corners, but they aren't in junior college anymore. And, if the Cajuns are going to be effective enough on defense to win football games, these guys need to be good. Right out of the box. Hudspeth has praised the defensive backfield for their improvement and their increased depth. We're going to find out early if that's coach speak.
3. 40 isn't here any more
We are about to find out how much the Cajuns miss Brett Baer. Here's a hint. A LOT. Baer turned out to be the most reliable placekicker in the history of NCAA Division I football. Get to the opponents' 35 yard line and the only question was going to be would the Cajuns get three points or seven? And, how about all those punts inside the 20 yard line?
Stephen Brachle will handle placements for the Cajuns, while Daniel Cadona will be the punter. Neither have kicked in an FBS game. Fans should not underestimate what the absence of Baer means.
4. What about the schedule?
Schedules are all about not only who you play, but when you play them. And, frankly, there isn't a lot to like about the Cajuns' schedule. Louisiana has only five home games, and only two before November 2nd. Five of the first seven games are on the road.
I've never been a fan of opening the season against a team with a new coach and that's exactly what the Cajuns are facing in the season opener. They know Bret Bielema likes to play big boy football and be physical at the line of scrimmage. Yet, Bielema's new offensive coordinator comes from Tennessee and he likes to throw it. That's really tough to prepare for. And, while the Cajuns will have some wrinkles, especially on defense with a new coordinator, they'll be easier to prepare for than Arkansas. In addition, no way the Hogs are overlooking the Cajuns. Everyone is ready to play in the first game of the season.
The good news is the Cajuns have back to back appearances on national television. The bad news is, both games are on the road and they're against two of the other favorites in the league. After a conference opener against Texas State, the Cajuns have to travel to visit Bobby Petrino's WKU Hilltoppers and then two time defending champion Arkansas State in Jonesboro...a place where the Cajuns have rarely won. Those two games are crucial to the Cajuns' league hopes. Split them and you're still in the running. Sweep them and you're likely to be playing for a championship on November 30. Lose them both and a big goal is taken away from the Cajuns before the end of October.
The rest of the schedule should be fine. In fact, the Cajuns can play less than their best football and still be bowl eligible as they'll be solidly favored in six games (Nicholls, Akron, Texas State, New Mexico State, Georgia State and South Alabama.
What this team does with the rest of the schedule with decide just how successful the 2013 season is going to be.
Prediction: 9-3. Provided Broadway stays healthy.