LAFAYETTE - Unfamiliar faces are occupying seats at Cajun Field.
And those who park vehicles outside the stadium are apparently leaving the legendary tailgating parties earlier now to watch the University of Louisiana at Lafayette play football.
That’s not surprising considering ULL (6-1, 4-0 Sun Belt) is reaching territory unexplored for at least two generations.
A win at Western Kentucky on Saturday would allow the Cajuns to equal their best start in 41 seasons.
That’s also the year the Cajuns last played in a postseason game - the 1970 Grantland Rice Bowl - a 26-25 loss to quarterback Joe Gilliam and Tennessee State at Baton Rouge’s Memorial Stadium.
ULL (then the University of Southwestern Louisiana) later won the first eight games under coach Augie Tammariello in 1976, but the Cajuns forfeited those victories because of ineligible players.
After Saturday’s 30-10 homecoming victory over North Texas, ULL became the first SBC team to start a season winning six of the first seven games.
All the success is reflected in home attendance.
The Cajuns drew 32,823 for North Texas. Several thousand fans purchased tickets to sit in the elevated grassy areas behind both goalposts, and some of those mentioned the unusual experience of having traffic congestion problems entering and exiting the stadium parking lot.
ULL’s average season attendance of 29,420 in four home games this year could surpass the crowds that appeared when Tammariello quickly revived interest in the Cajuns’ program, similar to what first-year coach Mark Hudspeth is doing.
In 1977 Tammariello’s Cajuns averaged a Cajun Field-best 25,224 in six games.
Hudspeth said he’s welcoming strangers who have looked elsewhere on autumn nights near Lafayette.
“A lot of people came up to me and said this is the first time they have been to a (ULL) football game,” Hudspeth said. “They came in with some friends from out of town. They said that they are going to be back.
“These people said they haven’t seen anything like the excitement in the stands, pregame and then after we scored on some of those big plays.
“I’m just proud to be associated with (ULL) and everybody that’s working so hard to make this a great football program. We are just trying to take it one step at a time.”
Hudspeth said at the start of the season he wasn’t sure how his team, now bowl-eligible for the fifth time in seven years, would react to predictions that had the Cajuns winning no more than three games - the same as the 3-9 record in 2010.
“You know, before the season I couldn’t decide if the rankings we got were going to be a plus or a minus,” Hudspeth said. “Was it going to be a motivation for our team, or was it going to be such a downer that we didn’t have any self-confidence?
“We tried to make the most of it, and obviously turn it into motivation. What everyone else around the country does doesn’t matter. It goes to show you what some of them even know.
“I do know we had worked hard. (The team) has earned this six-game winning streak with some tough wins over some good football teams.
“The thing about it, they are still trying to improve. We are still not a great football team. We are a team struggling to get better every week.”