The weight isn’t on the shoulders of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s football team as it was a year ago, when the Ragin’ Cajuns were the prohibitive favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference.
Coach Mark Hudspeth said that weight has been replaced on the Cajuns’ collective shoulders by a giant chip.
“Expectations are different, and I think that’s added a completely different element to our offseason training and our preparation,” Hudsepth said Monday at Sun Belt Media Day in New Orleans. “Last year, everyone was asking our seniors if we were going to go undefeated, and I said, ‘Hey guys, we’re getting way out of hand here.’”
In 2014, the consensus among the coaches and the preseason pundits was that the Cajuns were the team to beat ... and that’s exactly what happened the entire month of September. UL-Lafayette lost in consecutive weeks to Louisiana Tech, Ole Miss and Boise State by an average of more than 31 points.
The Cajuns regrouped and won eight of their last nine games, including a 7-1 mark in the Sun Belt and a 16-3 victory over Nevada for their fourth straight New Orleans Bowl title. But senior offensive lineman Mykhael Quave, for one, hasn’t forgotten those early season frustrations and missing out on the league title after a late-season loss to Appalachian State.
“We learned from last year,” Quave said. “You get blinded by the flashing lights if you look too far ahead. You get bit by the thing that’s right in front of you.”
This year, the Sun Belt coaches tabbed the Cajuns in second place behind defending champion Georgia Southern in their preseason poll.
UL-Lafayette has been picked as high as second and as low as fifth by the preseason magazines, many of which have picked second-year league member Appalachian State to claim the title.
“I won’t say it’s made us more relaxed,” Quave said, “but we’re not putting any added pressure that we don’t need on ourselves. We’re taking everything step by step. It sounds cliché, but that’s really how you have to do it.”
“We did not handle expectations very well,” Hudspeth said of last year.
“We were just about a unanimous pick, and that was a little too much for us to handle looking back. We did not approach it the right way.”
Hudspeth, ever the motivator after leading the program to four straight nine-win seasons, is looking to turn the change in expectations to his advantage. He compared this year’s preseason to his first year in 2011, when one magazine tabbed the Cajuns last among the country’s FBS programs.
“It’s been great to have a chip on our shoulder again,” he said. “We haven’t had a chip on our shoulder like this since that first year, when we were picked 120th in the country and finished with a 9-4 record.”
That chip carries over to the Sun Belt’s preseason all-conference teams. Other than the expected selection of running back Elijah McGuire as Offensive Player of the Year, UL-Lafayette had no first-team picks. The Cajuns did have six players named to the preseason second team: Quave, fellow offensive lineman Octravian Anderson, receiver Jamal Robinson, linebackers Darzil Washington (at defensive line) and Dominique Tovell and safety Tracy Walker.
“A lot of players that we had in spots, those guys are gone,” Quave said. “We’re leaving last year, last year. We don’t have that team anymore. We’re a different team, and we’re filling in those gaps. We ended up on a great note last year, but that has nothing to do with how we start this year.”
The Cajuns will start the year with one major move: the completion of the under-construction Athletic Performance Center tentatively scheduled for the week of the Sept. 5 opener at Kentucky. Hudspeth said the move into the 100,000 square-foot facility is another step in the evolution of the program that has the fifth-most wins nationally among the “Group of Five” conferences over the past four years.
“We think we’ve laid a great foundation,” he said. “Now where do we go from here, how do we get better, how do we improve? The things that we’re fixing to do will help us in the process of becoming a championship program.
“When you’ve been the most successful team in the conference in total wins, that’s a good foundation.”