LAFAYETTE — Be honest: You’re ecstatic that nobody’s expecting the Ragin’ Cajuns to go out and rock college football’s boat this year.
The Sun Belt preseason coaches’ poll was released Friday, and it had Louisiana-Lafayette checking in at No. 2 in the conference with three first-place votes.
It’s not a bad spot by any stretch, but it isn’t quite the unanimous first-place decision the Cajuns received in the poll a year prior.
Other preseason prognostications have been less kind to the team that has rolled to a 24-7 record in the conference the past four years. Nobody has tabbed the Cajuns to win the conference, and ESPN went as far as picking the Cajuns to finish fifth.
It might seem insulting, but that sound you hear coming from the Cajuns’ athletic complex isn’t one of anger. It’s a sigh of relief — and the realization of an opportunity.
You, the fan, may be happy, but Mark Hudspeth, the coach, is downright giddy — though he won’t say as much when he makes his first official appearance of the upcoming season Monday at SBC Media Day.
Normally, I don’t buy into the notion that a team’s performance can be affected in any way, shape or form by the opinions of those involved in a strictly observational basis. It’s illogical, but I started to change my feelings on that topic after watching the first month of the 2014 season unfold.
You saw what happened to last year’s team, which was supposed to be the best team in school history — and very well might’ve been, had it not had to deal with the weight of its own expectations.
The team that many in my profession picked to be a darkhorse candidate to create some waves to ripple through the college football universe was outscored 138-44 in consecutive September losses to Louisiana Tech, Ole Miss and Boise State.
Catch Hudspeth in a candid moment, and he’ll tell you that the expectations were too much for last year’s team, not because it crumbled under the pressure of them but because it started to believe too much in them. It’s a precarious line to walk.
On one hand, you want to foster confidence in a group of alpha males. You want them to believe they’re the baddest dudes on the playing field because, when they believe that, they’ll play as if it’s true.
The Cajuns of last year would’ve told you they felt that way, even after starting 1-3, but they would’ve been lying. You could see their confidence was crushed after Louisiana Tech embarrassed them on their home field.
The Cajuns had to spend the better part of a month picking up the pieces and figuring out what their true identity was. If you don’t think the failure to meet their own expectations two games into the season had any part in that, you’re wrong.
It was a testament to how talented the roster actually was last season that it was able to respond and go 7-1 down the stretch. Imagine what could’ve happened if that team didn’t start the season believing it was something it wasn’t.
In Hudspeth’s early years, the Cajuns didn’t win games by outclassing an opponent athletically; they won them by believing in the underdog culture Hudspeth had cultivated.
This year, Hudspeth has already started grooming the mindset that made his first few teams so successful. Hanging in clear plastic placards just outside the team’s locker room are printouts of the preseason predictions that have been released so far.
None of them shows the Cajuns at the top of the conference. All of them have something to the effect of “no respect” scrawled on them in bold red ink.
Winning the preseason does no tangible good for your program, but it can definitely do some harm.
The Cajuns will comfortably sit in the back seat and relish the fact that nobody’s picking them to do anything noteworthy — because that has the potential to breed something extraordinary.