LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette has won 36 games in the past four seasons, eight more than in any other four-year period in Ragin’ Cajuns football history.
The Cajuns have won four straight New Orleans Bowls, becoming the first team in college football history to win the same bowl in four straight seasons, and have drawn the top four crowds in that game’s history.
Only UL-Lafayette and Oregon can boast four straight nine-win seasons and four consecutive bowl wins.
It’s an impressive résumé for coach Mark Hudspeth, who took over a team that went 3-9 in 2010 and had a grand total of one winning season in 15 years prior to his arrival. The only thing lacking on that résumé is a milestone win — a head-turner. The kind of victory over a team the Cajuns weren’t supposed to beat.
“Everybody talks about signature wins. We’re just trying to win the next game,” Hudspeth said. “I know that’s coach speak, but every win we get is a signature win.”
When UL-Lafayette faces Kentucky at 6 p.m. Saturday at newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium for the 2015 opener, the Cajuns will have the chance to ink that signature win in a big way.
“This would really springboard us,” said senior offensive guard Mykhael Quave, who will start his 40th straight game on the offensive front. “This would be a huge milestone for the program. We haven’t beaten an SEC team yet. This would show all our hard work has paid off.”
Even with all the success of the past four years, the Cajuns haven’t fared well against nonconference FBS foes. Not including the four New Orleans Bowl wins, UL-Lafayette is 4-9 against FBS teams outside the Sun Belt since 2011.
Admittedly, the competition has been rugged, with Oklahoma State (twice), Arizona, Florida, Arkansas, Kansas State, Ole Miss and Boise State accounting for eight of those nine losses. But the four FBS wins in that stretch have come over Kent State, Tulane, Akron and New Mexico State, and none of those four finished with a winning record in the years they lost to the Cajuns — compiling a combined 14-34 record.
A win Saturday against an SEC team on the road would shove those numbers aside. It wouldn’t cut much into UL-Lafayette’s all-time 1-61 deficit against current SEC members, but it would be a huge boost, especially after the sky high expectations of last season lead-ballooned in a September to forget.
“If we want to have the type of season we want to have as a team and reach the goals we want to reach, this one would be big,” junior linebacker Kevin Fouquier said. “It would definitely get everyone excited.”
The Wildcats went 5-7 last season, losing their last six after a promising 5-1 start that included league wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina and a lone overtime loss at Florida. In season-ending losses to Georgia, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky gave up 157 points.
The Cajuns were nearly as erratic on defense last year despite their final 9-4 mark, and that led to this year’s all-new defensive staff with SEC veteran Melvin Smith taking over as defensive coordinator. UL-Lafayette’s defensive scheme has been kept under wraps since spring practice, and that could make things interesting on both sides Saturday considering the Wildcats will operate under new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. Dawson was brought in by third-year coach Mark Stoops and replaced Neal Brown, who took the head job at Sun Belt member Troy last December.
“I still think any team takes on the personality of its head coach,” Hudspeth said. “Coach Stoops is a defensive guy that always has tough, physical teams. When you have a new coordinator, all you can do is go by what he’s done at other places. (Dawson) was different at West Virginia than he was at Stephen F. Austin, so you wonder if Coach Stoops is going to put his stamp on it or let him go 100 percent. I know we’ve got a plan, and then we’ve got a secondary plan.”
It’s not like the Wildcats know what to expect from the Cajuns offense. For the first time since Hudspeth arrived, there are questions at the quarterback position, and the answer to the first one — who’s going to start? — won’t come until Saturday’s first snap.
Juniors Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon have battled for that role since the start of spring drills. Actually, it’s been a three-way tussle, with redshirt freshman Jordan Davis still not completely out of the mix.
Haack has one career start — a regular season-ending loss at South Alabama in 2013 when three-year starter Terrance Broadway was injured — but Nixon took several snaps for a banged-up Broadway in last December’s 16-3 New Orleans Bowl win over Nevada.
Hudspeth knows who his starter is, and he and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson told Haack and Nixon of their decision Tuesday. But Hudspeth also said “100 percent” that both would see action Saturday.
“We want the guy to get in his head to start preparing,” Hudspeth said. “The other guy has to prepare, too, because he has to be ready. We’ve got some outstanding skill players so that the quarterback doesn’t have to feel like he has to do it all himself.”
Kentucky had quarterback issues of its own in the spring, but returning starter Patrick Towles finally won his job back. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Towles threw for 2,718 yards and 14 scores last year.
“They’ve got a big quarterback that can spread it around, and that’s a weapon when you have that,” Hudspeth said. “That creates an even bigger challenge for us. Defensively, we’re still learning on the run, but in buying in, I assure you they’re all one heartbeat.”