LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is 8-2, with the school’s best start since 1993 and playing Saturday for no worse than a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship.

Who would have thought it?

Mark Hudspeth, for one. Oh, maybe not the 8-2 part, but playing for the conference title, yeah, that’s not really that big a surprise to ULL’s first-year coach.

“I’m going to be honest with you: I told the team in the locker room after the Oklahoma State game,” Hudspeth said Monday when asked when he first thought that his team could be special. “They came in there ranting and raving, and I told them, ‘Guys, I’ll be honest, I’m somewhat excited.’

“We had just got beat 61-34 by now the No. 2 team in the nation, and at one point in the second half, it was a 21-point game, which probably is closer than anyone else in the country (other than Texas A&M and Texas)  has played them.

“And our guys kept fighting and fighting and never let go of the rope all the way to the end of the game. And we ended up scoring 34 points on the No. 2 team in the nation on the road.”

Hudspeth said he saw his team’s determination and fight and told his players “we have something special.”

That “something special” was affirmed when the Cajuns then ran off six straight wins, four of them at home. In that stretch, they defeated SBC preseason favorite Florida International and perennial powerhouse Troy, after which Hudspeth realized something magical that was happening.

A 42-34 road loss at Western Kentucky temporarily interrupted the Cajuns Express, but victories the past two weeks over Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Monroe, the latter in a dramatic comeback in the final three minutes, have gotten the Cajuns back on track and lifted them to 6-1 in SBC play.

When the Ragin’ Cajuns visit conference leader Arkansas State (7-2, 5-0 SBC) at 2:04 p.m. Saturday on ESPN3, they not only will be playing for a share of the league championship but also the school’s first nine-win season since going 9-2 in 1976. The Cajuns also finished 9-2 in 1921.

“When we went down to Florida International and won on the road and then came back and won against Troy and had that little stretch, we really didn’t want to talk about it a whole bunch, but we just knew, everybody knew, that we had something special,” said Hudspeth. “But we just kept our focus on the next game: The next game is the most important game in the history of this university. We kept our focus on the next game, kept working and here we are.”

Indeed.

“It’ll be two good football teams battling it out on a big stage and with a lot at stake (Saturday),” said Hudspeth. “These are the type games you love playing in, these big ones. I love playing in any of them, but these are the fun ones … the big ones.”