LAFAYETTE - Just a year ago, the football programs at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Arkansas State were mired in instability, finishing with a combined seven wins under head coaches who were eventually fired.
That scene has been dramatically changed in the past 11 months, as the teams, inspired by new coaches and fresh approaches, are headed in the opposite direction and battling for a Sun Belt Conference championship that could be decided beginning at 2:05 p.m. Saturday at ASU Stadium in Jonesboro, Ark.
Second-place ULL (8-2, 6-1) and league-leading Arkansas State (7-2, 5-0) are among several teams nationally that have made the quickest turnarounds from last year.
ULL’s Mark Hudspeth and ASU’s Hugh Freeze have both won more games than any first-year coach at either school.
In addition, ULL has a chance to play in its first bowl game since 1970, and another win will give the Cajuns their most wins since 1976.
Meanwhile, the Red Wolves’ six straight victories are the most since 1986.
The Cajuns, who are playing their final SBC game of the season, need a win to grab at least a share of the conference title.
ASU has remaining SBC games against Middle Tennessee and Troy.
Also in the title picture is Western Kentucky (5-4, 5-1) which plays Saturday at LSU. Like ASU, the Hilltoppers have two conference games left.
ULL senior fullback Brad McGuire said the Cajuns’ turnaround has been a bit unusual, because many of the players on the team were also there last season.
“We have the same faces, except for a few new guys,” McGuire said. “This year we have more of a hard-nosed mentality, and the players have bought into what the coaches are selling.
“To me, it’s been amazing as to how powerful that can be.”
Hudspeth said the players have also believed in giving themselves the opportunity to win a title.
“We’ve always talked about the great athletes and the great teams giving themselves chances to do great things,” Hudspeth said. “I think the thing that has also helped us is the idea that we were always going to focus on the next game. The team has done that and here we are. I think keeping that focus has allowed us to get to that point.”
ASU is among two teams nationally which leads its conferences in total offense and defense.
Safety Lionel Stokes said one of the Cajuns’ biggest challenges is containing ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin, who leads the league in total offense.
The Wolves also have the SBC’s leading receiver in Dwayne Frampton, who has 64 receptions for 777 yards and four touchdowns.
Stokes said defending the elusive Aplin will be made easier, since ULL starting quarterback Blaine Gautier is also a passing and running threat.
“That’s going to help us a lot. (Gautier) and (scout team redshirt quarterback) Terrance Broadway are the same type of player as Aplin. We’ve gotten a good look at a mobile quarterback all season,” Stokes said.
Gautier has a 159.3 passer efficiency rating, which is tops in the conference. The former Lutcher High School star has completed 149 of 230 passes for 17 touchdowns.
Like the Cajuns, the ASU defense has 12 interceptions, with the Red Wolves picking off at least one in seven straight games.
ULL’s interceptions came mainly in the first five games, and Stokes said the Cajuns defense needs to recapture that ability once again.
“I’m glad the defense has played a part in our record, but give Arkansas State and their defense some credit,” Stokes said. “They are the team that is undefeated in the Sun Belt.
“The (ULL) defense needs to play that role we did earlier and get turnovers like we haven’t been doing lately.”