This isn’t a small step for the Louisiana-Lafayette football program. It’s a giant leap.
That step, of course, is the next one, the one that ascends through the non-power conference ceiling and into the unknown.
After three consecutive 9-4 seasons that culminated with New Orleans Bowl championships, the Cajuns are poised to make the transition from being an upper-echelon Sun Belt Conference program to one that is nationally ranked — not only in 2014, but in the years to come. It’s the next step in a logical progression for a program that has been revived from the doldrums of being semi-competitive every season.
“Ultimately, we want to become a team that could be a Top 25 team year in and year out,” coach Mark Hudspeth said at Sun Belt media day.
But being poised to do so and actually accomplishing that goal are different things, mainly because it involves completely uncharted territory for both the program and the conference.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have never been ranked and, for that matter, neither has any Sun Belt team. But a national ranking is within the realm of possibility, especially if UL-Lafayette turns in road wins at Boise State or preseason No. 19 Ole Miss, a dark-horse title contender in the stacked Southeastern Conference Western Division.
Those two games are key to the Ragin’ Cajuns program rising to where it wants to be, senior quarterback Terrance Broadway said.
“That’s the next step for us: Win one of the two, maybe both of the games on the road,” Broadway said before adding an important caveat. “In order for us to do that, we have to take it game by game, and that starts with Southern on Aug. 30.”
The one-game-at-a-time mantra has become standard-issue coachspeak, roughly translated to this: “We promise we haven’t circled the important games on our schedule. Every game is equally important. We’re not thinking about what may potentially define our season.”
While that can be difficult to believe in some respects, it might be the best way for the Cajuns to be competitive in those huge nonconference games.
Last season, UL-Lafayette was in a somewhat similar situation. Expectations were high after a nine-win season and a New Orleans Bowl victory, a bevy of starters returned and the program had two huge early nonconference games.
The difference was that the two games, at Arkansas and Kansas State, came at the beginning of the schedule. Rather than getting into the routine of game week and preparation, the Cajuns had to hit a game-winning grand slam in the first or second inning. The result was two quick losses to start the season, neither as competitive as when the Cajuns nearly toppled Florida on the road the year before.
This season, the Cajuns open up with Southern and Louisiana Tech at home before they hit the road in their attempt at taking the next step. They’ll be able to focus on the weekly grind of the season, work out all the kinks and try to make history.
If the Cajuns are able to pull a win or two out, who knows? Perhaps they’ll run the table and be considered for a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl — or maybe even the new four-team College Football Playoff.
“It’s not impossible,” Hudspeth said, “but it’d have to be an outstanding season against a pretty good strength of schedule to get into that final four.”
That’s way down the road. A lot needs to bounce the right way for that to happen. Until then, the Cajuns will focus on the first step — which is the huge step.
Another nine-win season and a Sun Belt championship still would be considered a success, but that won’t stop Hudspeth and his team from aiming higher than the standard they’ve set together.
It’s not easy to vault through ceilings, but other programs have found a way to do it. The goals are in place.
“You look at the Boise model, you look at the TCU model, you look at the Louisville model from years ago — we want to be that team,” Hudspeth said.
“That’s awfully hard. ... We’re making progress, we’re not there yet, but you’ve got to set your expectations and your goals high.
“Hopefully we can continue moving forward as a program and one day reach them.”