The Sun Belt Conference’s football coaches aren’t ready to concede the title, but they certainly painted a Ragin’ Cajuns logo on the target Tuesday at the league’s media day.
Louisiana-Lafayette was the unanimous pick in the preseason poll announced over the weekend, and the Cajuns’ status as runaway favorites for a second straight title — they shared last year’s with Arkansas State — was reinforced throughout Tuesday’s interview sessions.
“They’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of speed,” said New Mexico State coach Doug Martin, whose program returns to the Sun Belt this season and lost to the Cajuns 49-35 last year. “They’re definitely ahead of us defensively.”
“We’re not without questions, and we all have questions,” said Texas State coach Dennis Franchione, whose squad lost 48-24 to UL-Lafayette in a game that wasn’t that close. “Lafayette’s only question may be who they’re gonna put in the game, because they have a lot of guys back.”
“You have to pick them to win the league,” said South Alabama coach Joey Jones, whose team topped the Cajuns 30-8 in last year’s regular-season finale. “Our goal is to be where they are. They and Arkansas State have set the standard the last couple of years.”
The Cajuns didn’t have injured quarterback Terrance Broadway for the loss at South Alabama and dropped their last two in the regular season with Broadway sidelined. But with the Capitol High product in the lineup, UL-Lafayette was 9-2, won eight games in a row and topped Tulane 24-21 in the New Orleans Bowl.
It was no surprise that Broadway was voted preseason Offensive Player of the Year and quarterback on the all-conference first team.
“For us to be one of the few teams with our starting quarterback back is encouraging,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “He’s out to prove that he’s an all-conference level quarterback.”
Broadway, who threw for 2,419 yards and 19 touchdowns despite his late-season injury, is in the minority in a league that has been quarterback-oriented the past several years. He’s one of only five returning quarterback starters among the league’s 11 teams, and only two others are back on returning league squads. Tyler Jones started seven games for Texas State and Ronnie Bell 11 for Georgia State, but Bell was beaten out for his starting job in spring drills.
“Guys that have a seasoned, veteran quarterback, they’re ahead of the game,” said new Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, who was the Cajuns’ offensive coordinator in 2007. “(The Cajuns) deserve to be the favorite. ... We had a transition, and they didn’t.”
The title pick by the league’s coaches comes at a cost, Hudspeth said.
“I’ve already told our team, and what I’m trying to get across to them is, being picked the unanimous favorites, you’ve got a target on your backs,” he said. “Each week, at home or on the road, you’re going to get their best shot. They’re going to raise their level of play, and we’ve got to match that to win games.”
Senior running back Alonzo Harris, one of 10 Cajuns who earned preseason All-Sun Belt honors, said the preseason pick doesn’t add any more pressure than the squad puts on itself.
“That’s the type of group we are, the type of work ethic we have,” Harris said. “I don’t see any of my guys, guys I came in with, that have taken a single day off. You have to do that to get where you want to be.”
Harris has bigger goals.
“Every season, we want to go undefeated,” he said. “If you do that, all the other goals fall into place ... conference championships and winning bowl games. (Going undefeated) is something that’s still up there, something we want to do. We want to be the team to leave here with that mark. That starts August 30 and goes from there.”
The Cajuns open the season that day against Southwestern Athletic Conference champion Southern at newly expanded Cajun Field; that one, a home game against Louisiana Tech and contests at Boise State and Ole Miss precede the eight-game conference slate. If the Cajuns can emerge without a loss, they could be in position to earn the automatic New Year’s Day bowl berth that goes to the top-ranked team in the “Group of Five” leagues that also includes the Mountain West, Conference USA, American and Mid-American.
“We’re so far away from even thinking about that,” Hudspeth said. “The only thing we want to do is continue to improve as a team and a program.”