Reaching the inaugural Sun Belt Conference championship game should be reward enough, but UL-Lafayette’s claim to the West Division title came with a significant added benefit.
Last weekend’s 31-28 win over UL-Monroe boosted the Ragin’ Cajuns (7-5, 5-3) into the title game at 11 a.m. Saturday against East Division winner Appalachian State. It also allowed the Cajuns to lock down the rest of their postseason plans, thanks to a pair of announcements by the Sun Belt over the past two weeks.
Last week, the league announced that the winner of Saturday’s title game in Boone, North Carolina, will claim the Sun Belt’s spot in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 15 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
On Tuesday, the Sun Belt announced that Saturday’s loser would be headed to Orlando, Florida, and the AutoNation Cure Bowl, also Dec. 15 at Camping World Stadium.
In other words, the Cajuns are locked into their sixth bowl appearance in eight years. Had they lost to the Warhawks last Saturday, their bowl status would be tenuous at best.
“We tried to make it a non-factor last week,” Cajuns first-year coach Billy Napier said of the win over ULM assuring a bowl trip. “But I think everybody would agree it was in the back of their minds. The good thing is, we didn’t let it distract us, and we focused on the right things last week, so we have to continue to do that.”
Napier said the complete focus is on Appalachian State (9-2, 7-1) in a rematch of the Mountaineers’ 27-17 home win over the Cajuns on Oct. 20 — but knowing the season won’t end Saturday was a major step in his first season.
“It was a little bit of an external factor that we couldn’t control,” he said. “Now that it’s a given, it’s a positive for our program, our team and certainly for our university. To have an opportunity to reward our players with a bowl game, another game for these seniors, there’s some gratification and some reward coming from that. It’s a big step for our staff as well in our first year.”
The Sun Belt has five bowl tie-ins, with three already decided. Arkansas State (8-4, 5-3) has accepted a spot in the Dec. 29 NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl in Tucson. That leaves Troy (9-3, 7-1) and Georgia Southern (9-3, 6-2) to fill spots in the Dec. 15 Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Dec. 22 Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
ULM (6-6, 4-4) is also bowl-eligible but will likely be shut out of the bowl picture. The Warhawks could only get into the postseason as an at-large selection, and there are already 81 bowl-eligible teams nationally for 78 available spots. That number could rise to 82 if Virginia Tech beats replacement-game opponent Marshall on Saturday.
UL-Lafayette will either make its sixth New Orleans Bowl appearance since 2011, or making its debut in the four-year-old Cure Bowl. All proceeds from the bowl go to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, with contributions of $3.55 million in the first three years.
The Cajuns are 4-1 all-time in New Orleans, becoming the first team in NCAA history to win the same bowl in four consecutive years before falling to Southern Miss 28-21 in 2016.
“We all want to win this weekend because this is our goal, and now we have a chance to actually do it,” junior tackle Robert Hunt said of the Sun Belt title game. “But we know we win this one and we get to New Orleans. We know how our fans turn out when we have gone to the New Orleans Bowl. We know that our fans will be great there, so we’re trying to get there and put on a show for our fans.”
The Cajuns’ five appearances at the New Orleans Bowl are also the five top-attended games in the bowl’s 17-year history. The bowl attendance record of 54,728 was set at UL-Lafayette’s 24-21 win over Tulane in 2013
Tulane is a potential opponent for the Sun Belt runner-up in the Cure Bowl, which has a 12:30 p.m. kickoff on the CBS Sports Network and will be the first bowl of the season.
Tulane is one of the bowl-eligible teams from the American Athletic Conference, which provides the other team. The Sun Belt has won the last two Cure Bowls, Arkansas State beating UCF 27-16 in 2016 and Georgia State beating Western Kentucky 27-17 last year.
The New Orleans Bowl has an 8 p.m. kickoff on ESPN with the Sun Belt champion facing a team from Conference USA. Sun Belt teams have won six of the last eight New Orleans Bowls.