It’s bad enough that Louisiana-Lafayette has never beaten a Southeastern Conference team in 37 tries, or that the Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off their most disappointing performance in a couple of seasons.
It’s not enough to face an Ole Miss team that has averaged 38 points in its first two games, and one whose defense ranks fifth nationally in points allowed and in the top 15 in defending the pass.
If the Cajuns (1-1) are going to spring one of college football’s biggest early-season upsets, it’ll have to be on the road, and that’s a place that’s been tough for underdog Cajuns teams even during the runaway successes of coach Mark Hudspeth’s first three years.
The host Rebels (2-0), coming off blowout victories over Boise State and Vanderbilt, are a three-touchdown favorite in Saturday’s 3 p.m. home opener at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, expected to be at its 60,580 capacity.
“That’s a tough place to play,” said Hudspeth, who grew up 99 miles south of the stadium in Louisville, Mississippi. “They’re very loud. We’ll hear the ‘Hotty Toddy’ quite a few times. It’s always tough when you go on the road, especially against a really good football team.”
The Cajuns are opening their road season after home contests against two state rivals — an easy 45-6 win over Southern and last Saturday’s 48-20 embarrassment at the hands of Louisiana Tech. Under Hudspeth, the Cajuns have been a road underdog 11 times and hold a 3-8 record, including an 0-4 mark in the past two seasons.
Adding to those struggles, the Rebels are likely looking at September as their chance to shine. Following home games against the Cajuns and Memphis, Ole Miss faces an October gauntlet against No. 2 Alabama, No. 7 Texas A&M on the road, Tennessee, No. 9 LSU on the road and a Nov. 1 matchup against Auburn ... all without an open date.
“I don’t have enough power to control any of the scheduling,” Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said. “I wish I did. If I had a say in it, absolutely it would be broken up some, because that’s going to be a murderous stretch to go through.”
Freeze led Arkansas State to the Sun Belt Conference title in 2011 in his only year with the Red Wolves, knocking off first-year coach Hudspeth’s Cajuns 30-21 in Jonesboro in a November de facto league title game, before becoming part of ASU’s revolving door of head coaches that now numbers five in five seasons. Since then, he’s gone 7-6 and 8-5 with the Rebels including two bowl wins, and his team ranks 14th in this week’s AP poll.
“Coach Freeze has it going in Oxford,” said Hudspeth, who will be taking more than a dozen Mississippi natives on his team’s first road trip of the year. “The challenge is not getting any easier ... we’re facing one of the most talented teams in the SEC.”
Hudspeth was especially high on Rebels senior quarterback Bo Wallace and sophomore defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. Wallace has thrown for 707 yards and five scores in two games, ranking eighth nationally in total offense, passing yards and completion percentage (72.7%). Nkemdiche, the nation’s top prep recruit two years ago, has already been named to one preseason All-America squad this year (second-team by Athlon).
“You have to make sure he’s accounted for,” Hudspeth said of Nkemdiche. “He’s one of the most talented guys in a very talented league. Wallace, he’s a senior, and any time you’ve been tested your mettle is strong. He’s a tough kid, and he knows the system. He gets the ball to his playmakers, and he’s not afraid to run the football.
“We’ve got to get after him and create some turnovers, and that’s one thing we haven’t done a good job of that’s been critical in the first two games.”
The Cajuns have yet to force a turnover this year, and his own senior quarterback Terrance Broadway has thrown three picks — not a good sign against a team that ranks second nationally with five interceptions.
Broadway and fellow senior defensive tackle Christian Ringo led a Monday players-only meeting following the Tech loss.
“(Broadway) came to me and wanted to meet with the team,” Hudspeth said. “They respect Terrance and what he stands for and the work he’s put in. When your quarterback is grabbing the bull by the horns, you get excited about it.”
Broadway has thrown for 387 yards and four scores and hopes to get his primary target back. Jamal Robinson went out early against the Bulldogs with an injured leg and is still questionable after catching seven passes for 141 yards and two scores in the season’s first five quarters.
Broadway is also part of a rushing threesome that are all averaging more than 60 yards per game, joining Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris, and that trio also averages right at six yards per carry. Hudspeth knows the Cajuns will have to both run and throw to have success against a defense that has given up one touchdown this year, that one coming late after the Boise game was decided.
“They’re deep, fast and athletic,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of playmakers on the defensive side of the football. You watch them on film, and they run to the ball like a pack of wolves ... very impressive.”