Corey Turner wasn’t sure any of this could happen.
UL-Lafayette’s senior safety wanted badly to push aside the struggles of the previous three seasons and buy into the new process that first-year coach Billy Napier was putting in place.
The New Orleans native was all in, ready to do whatever was necessary … but he wasn’t convinced that the Ragin’ Cajuns program could make a turnaround in the one year of football he had remaining.
“To be honest, I didn’t think we would be here right now,” Turner said.
“Here” is in Boone, North Carolina, and in inaugural Sun Belt Conference championship game at 11 a.m. Saturday — a spot the Cajuns (7-5, 5-3) earned by winning the West Division in the first year of the league’s split into two divisions. They’ll take on heavy favorite Appalachian State (9-2, 7-1) on EPSN at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
Turner and his teammates will have another “here” in two weeks, because their win at UL-Monroe in the final weekend of the regular season also locked down a bowl berth.
A win Saturday puts UL-Lafayette back into familiar territory, in its sixth R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in eight years, while a loss will set up a trip to Orlando, Florida, for a first-ever appearance in the AutoNation Cure Bowl.
Turner would prefer the former, since it’s in his hometown and since the Cajuns would be sporting a conference championship trophy. It would also be meaningful since the prospects of any postseason play appeared to be a pie-in-the-sky dream 364 days ago.
Turner remembers last Dec. 2 when he and teammates were walking off the turf at Appalachian State, having been soundly whipped 63-14 by a team that locked up a share of the Sun Belt title.
The Cajuns scored a touchdown on that game’s third play from scrimmage and then gave up 56 unanswered points on the way to finishing with a losing record (5-7) for the third straight season.
“Walking off that field last year, me and a couple of teammates said we were going to be back,” said fellow linebacker Justin Middleton. “It was a tough loss seeing the seniors go out like that. It’s not so much revenge as us wanting to show that we belonged on the field. Getting this opportunity to go back, I love it.”
The three losing seasons led to seven-year coach Mark Hudspeth’s ouster. When Napier was hired, Turner and Middleton were among a group that vowed to do better and have the chance to write a different ending to their own senior seasons.
“I want these guys to experience success,” said Napier, one of only three first-time FBS head coaches nationally to have his team in postseason play. “That’s what I get the most gratification out of. These seniors have been a pretty special group, with what a lot of them have been through, the good and the bad. They’ve seen the ups and downs of this program.”
Those seniors and the rest of the Cajuns needed Napier and his staff to change the process. Napier needed the seniors to change the culture.
“They were very receptive coming in the door,” Napier said. “They’ve done a great job from a leadership standpoint and an example standpoint, and they’ve grown up a lot. You could see them developing ownership in what we were doing, and they’re starting to realize that can pay off for them. I wanted them to get rewarded for their work.”
The rewards came after a 1-3 September when the Cajuns won six of their final eight games. One of the two road losses was by a 27-17 score at Appalachian State six weeks ago, one week before UL-Lafayette upset West Division favorite Arkansas State to take control of its destiny in the league race.
The biggest reward came one week ago when the Cajuns held on for a 31-28 win at rival UL-Monroe in the regular-season finale, putting them in Saturday’s title game and locking up the bowl berth.
“Knowing how we finished the season last year, we’ve come a long way since then,” Turner said. “With it being my last year, I couldn’t ask for anything more from my teammates and coaches. I’m excited and we’re ready to take this task on together.”
The Saturday task is a stiff one. The Mountaineers lead the Sun Belt in both scoring offense and scoring defense and will be going for a third straight league title. Their only blemishes this season are a season-opening 45-38 overtime loss at Penn State and a 34-14 loss at Georgia Southern that knocked them out of the AP Top 25.
The Mountaineers are 5-0 at home. App State’s defense is allowing 9.2 points per game in its nine wins. And the Cajuns have never beaten Appalachian State in five previous meetings.
“These guys find a way,” Napier said. “The West Division champ has three conference losses, but we found a way to win our division. This year, we found a way to get to the championship game. The records and the numbers don’t matter anymore. That’s what I love about this game, the playoffs, once you’re in, you’re in and let’s go play for it.”