TOP FIVE STORY LINES:
1 -- How high can they go?
The Ragin’ Cajuns enter the 2014 season getting plenty of love. They were the coaches’ unanimous selection to win the Sun Belt Conference and received 12 votes in the preseason USA Today Coaches’ Poll. But if everything goes their way this year, the Cajuns could climb into those rankings, becoming the first SBC team to be ranked among college football’s top 25 teams. The path will be difficult, with tough nonconference road games against Boise State and Ole Miss, but a big win could vault the Cajuns into uncharted territory while setting them up for a potential run at a New Year’s Day Bowl. As great as that success would be for an up-and-coming program, it certainly wouldn’t come without a price. ...
2 -- ‘HUD’ watch
If the Cajuns are able to pull off a memorable season, it might be the last under coach Mark Hudspeth. His dramatic turnaround of the program, which has gone 27-12 under his watch after he inherited a 3-9 team, has made his name a popular one with schools looking for a new coach. So far, Hudspeth has rebuffed the offers, and the school rewarded him with a pay raise. But even a salary that sits in the $1 million range might not be enough to keep him in place, and a magical season in Lafayette could prove to be the spark another school needs to pry Hudspeth away. Athletic Director Scott Farmer should be bracing for the possibility of losing not only Hudspeth, but the majority of his staff.
3 -- Records watch
Several key offensive players are in line to make a dent in the Cajuns record books this season. While quarterback Terrance Broadway isn’t likely to catch Jake Delhomme on the school’s career passing yards list, he’s a good bet to move into second place all-time, needing just 981 passing yards to pass Jerry Babb. Five passing touchdowns would also move him into second place in school history (he’d need 29 to surpass Delhomme’s career mark). ... Likewise, running back Alonzo Harris would need a monster year to move into first place all-time on the Cajuns rushing yardage list. But he would pass Brian Mitchell for second place all-time with 812 yards on the ground. ... With a season comparable to last year, receiver Jamal Robinson would move into the top three in career receiving yards.
4 -- The time is now
The Cajuns are coming off three straight 9-4 seasons and three straight New Orleans Bowl wins. That is great, especially considering where the program was just a few years ago. But if they plan on taking the next step, 2014 is the year to do it. On the initial depth chart released in the media guide, 14 of the projected offensive and defensive starters are seniors, many of whom are expected to play enormous roles. Combine that with the possibility of Hudspeth leaving with a big chunk of his current staff, and it becomes clear there is no better time for the Cajuns to stake their claim as one of the premier programs outside the Power-Five conferences.
5 -- Who’s No. 2?
All the preseason accolades might amount to nothing if Broadway misses time with injury. The Cajuns struggled mightily when Broadway went down at the end of last season with a broken arm, losing a pair of games they probably should have won to close the regular season. In roughly six quarters without Broadway, the Ragin’ Cajuns scored just 15 points in losses to Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama. Hudspeth said at SBC Media Day that the Cajuns would be ready if they need to play without Broadway this year. Who will be the guy to step in in that scenario? Sophomore Brooks Haack and redshirt freshman Patrick Morton are listed as Broadway’s backups, with Haack having the only game experience.
FOUR THINGS UL-LAFAYETTE IS LOOKING FORWARD TO:
1 -- Home sweeter home
The Cajuns will open against Southern on Aug. 30 in a new-look Cajun Field. Roughly 6,000 seats were added in the south end zone, pushing the official capacity near 38,000, not including standing room only and the berm in the north end zone. The Cajuns will also be able to see their replays on a fancy new video board in the north end zone, and fans will be able to monitor the game digitally with improved cellular service in the area.
2 -- High flyers
With preseason all-conference honorees at quarterback, running back (two of ’em!), wide receiver, left tackle and right guard, the Cajuns are loaded on offense. They averaged nearly 34 points per game last season, and with most of the key pieces coming back should be able to match or exceed that number in 2014. The key to everything is the health of senior quarterback Terrance Broadway, the Sun Belt’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
3 -- Special teammate
Sophomore running back Elijah McGuire is electrifying with the ball in his hands, and he should have an opportunity to make an even larger impact than he did running for 870 yards as a true freshman. Hudspeth is testing McGuire’s ability as a return man this season, starting him out with punt returns and perhaps putting him deep for kick returns as well. Grab your popcorn, because this should be fun.
4 -- Welcome back, Willis
Defensive coordinator James Willis is returning for his second year after bumping the Ragin’ Cajuns from eighth to third in Sun Belt total defense in his first season. Willis very nearly took a job as a linebacker coach at Florida State this offseason, going so far as telling coach Mark Hudspeth and his defensive players that he was taking the job. But after taking the night to mull it over, Willis decided to return, where he’ll serve as the head of a talented defense.
This is the only spot that won’t have the same starter from a year before. Junior college transfer Eddie Gordon and redshirt freshman Grant Horst will duke it out over the duration of fall camp to determine who will replace Andre Huval. The 320-pound Gordon has a massive weight advantage over the 260-pound Horst, and also has played meaningful snaps at the college level, but coach Mark Hudspeth likes Gordon’s intelligence at the position.
Senior Trevence Pratt is moving over to play strong safety full-time, leaving one cornerback job up for grabs. As of now, it appears the battle is between junior-college transfer Antoinne Adkins and sophomore Dominick Jones. Jones is a couple of inches taller and earned his first varsity letter last season, with most of his action coming on special teams. The 5-foot-9 Adkins is learning the position after playing mostly receiver at East Mississippi Community College.
Not only must the Cajuns find a way to replace Darryl Surgent’s special teams skills, they must replace his offensive production: He hauled in 31 passes and five touchdowns a year ago. Junior Al Riles (5-foot-10, 212 pounds) started at both cornerback and linebacker last season but is making the move to offense to help out. Riles will have to beat out newcomers C.J. Bates, a gifted junior-college transfer, and freshman Gabe Fuselier.
While the tight end position wasn’t used a ton in the passing game last year — Jacob Maxwell and Ian Thompson combined for just 22 catches — the Cajuns will nevertheless be replacing an all-conference player (Maxwell) with a new starter. The first crack should go to senior Larry Pettis, who served as the third-string tight end last season. But Pettis will likely be challenged by a couple of others, including sophomore Nick Byrne and 6-foot-6 freshman Anthony Jones.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
CB Antoinne Adkins
Adkins, a junior-college transfer, is battling sophomore Dominick Jones for the starting cornerback spot vacated by Terrance Pratt’s move to strong safety.
WR C.J. Bates
Bates is from coach Mark Hudspeth’s hometown, but it’ll be his ability that turns heads. The 6-foot-2 wideout totaled more than 1,500 all-purpose yards for East Mississippi Community College.
TE Anthony Jones
Jones has a rare chance on this team: contribute as a freshman. The 6-foot-6 tight end could find some playing time at a position without a clear-cut starter.
Monday: First practices, Media Day
Friday: First day in pads
Aug. 25: First day of class
Aug. 30: Season opener vs. Southern
Date, Opponent, Time, TV
Aug. 30, Southern, 6 p.m., ESPN3
Sept. 6, Louisiana Tech, 6 p.m., ESPN3
Sept. 13, at Ole Miss, 3 p.m., SEC
Sept. 20, at Boise State, 9:30, CBS-S
Oct. 4, Georgia State, 6 p.m., TBA
Oct. 14, at Texas State, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Oct. 21, Arkansas State, 7 p.m., TBA
Nov. 1, South Alabama, 4 p.m., TBA
Nov. 8, at New Mexico St., 7 p.m., TBA
Nov. 15, at UL-Monroe, 6 p.m., TBA
Nov. 29, Appalachian St., TBA, TBA
Nov. 29, at Troy, 6:30, TBA