Both coaches have been in this position before, facing a rivalry game at the end of a college football season that means more than bragging rights.
However, since the Sun Belt Conference began playing football in 2001, neither UL-Lafayette nor UL-Monroe has been in a regular-season finale with as much on the line as this one at 2 p.m. Saturday at Malone Stadium.
For the Cajuns (6-5), a win means a West Division title and a trip to the Sun Belt’s inaugural championship game the following week. For the Warhawks, a win coupled with an Arkansas State loss carries the same reward.
For both, the winner all but assures the team of a bowl berth in one of the Sun Belt’s five bowl tie-ins, while the loser is more than likely out of the bowl hunt despite being bowl-eligible at 6-6.
First-year Cajuns coach Billy Napier is used to late-season rivalries. Three of his previous coaching stops were at schools with them.
“I think it’s a great thing that this game is at the end of the year,” Napier said. “It’s very similar to places I’ve been, whether that’s Clemson against South Carolina, Alabama against Auburn or Arizona State against Arizona. Certainly this game means a little more than normal, and our players and staff are aware of that.”
ULM’s Matt Viator is in his third year with the Warhawks and has ULM (6-5) bowl-eligible after back-to-back 4-8 seasons. He was also part of what used to be an intense rivalry between the Cajuns and McNeese State as a player and a coach, and his Cowboys teams were a perennial contender both in the Southland Conference and in a series of FCS playoff games.
“It’s been fun; it really has,” Viator said. “The connection in Lake Charles, and now here. It’s always been nothing but respect on my part, but the fact that we both have so much riding on it adds to it. It’s not just a rivalry game. Here it is, the last regular-season game, the end of November, after Thanksgiving and so much is riding on the game. It adds so much intrigue.”
The Cajuns (6-5) and the Warhawks share the West Division lead with Arkansas State, all at 4-3.
Because of UL-Lafayette’s 47-43 home win over A-State in late October, the Cajuns hold the tiebreaker over the Red Wolves — even if ASU wins its finale Saturday at Texas State.
A-State remained in the hunt with its 31-17 win over ULM last weekend, a loss that dropped the Warhawks out of sole possession of the West Division lead, and the Red Wolves would claim a berth in the Sun Belt title game with a win Saturday and a ULM win over the Cajuns. That makes Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson a big Warhawks supporter this week.
“I’ve now become ULM’s biggest fan,” Anderson joked Monday. “We know who we’ll be pulling for, but we can’t do anything about that. We don’t have any control over what happens there. If we don’t take care of our own business, we set ourselves up for a big disappointment.”
The Cajuns hold their own destiny in the race to see who will face the East Division champion. Troy (7-0) visits Appalachian State (6-1) Saturday in a de facto semifinal game, with the winner set to host the first-ever title game. The host slot comes courtesy of either the Trojans or the Mountaineers holding the league’s best overall record. UL-Lafayette lost to both teams.
“We’ve positioned ourselves, and we’re in contention,” said Napier, whose squad can finish a sweep of the West Division with a Saturday victory. “No matter what’s happened, we’re right where we need to be.”
Championship-game scenarios are simple compared to bowl possibilities. The Sun Belt announced last week that the winner of the Dec. 1 title game will represent the league in the Dec. 15 New Orleans Bowl against a representative from Conference USA.
One Alabama media outlet reported last week that the Mobile-based Dollar General Bowl would take the championship game loser. That game has traditionally had the second pick from available Sun Belt teams to pair up against a Mid-American Conference squad.
If that is the case, this Saturday’s Cajuns-Warhawks winner would be locked into one of those two games. Saturday’s loser would finish at 6-6 and be in a precarious postseason situation, since the Sun Belt will finish the season with five seven-win teams. Troy (9-2), Appalachian State (8-2), Georgia Southern (8-3) and Arkansas State (7-4) are likely bowl locks entering the final weekend, and the UL-Lafayette-UL-Monroe winner will finish the regular season 7-5.
The league’s other bowl tie-ins are the Camellia Bowl Dec. 15 in Montgomery, Alabama; the AutoNation Cure Bowl Dec. 15 in Orlando, Florida; and the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 28 in Tucson, Arizona.
It is likely that no Sun Belt teams will earn “at-large” berths since six of the nation’s 10 FBS leagues have filled their bowl allotment with one week remaining and the other four are all likely to fill their spots Saturday.
“We can’t worry about all that,” Napier said. “We have to stay in the same mode we’ve been in for the last couple of weeks relative to the division and the championship game. That’s just find a way to win and advance.”