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UL wide receiver Kaleb Carter (26) runs with the ball against Ohio safety Michael Ballentine (39) during their NCAA football game on Thursday, September 16, 2021 in Lafayette, La..

It’s not really a do-or-die game.

It just feels that way.

Technically, the UL Ragin’ Cajuns could lose to Appalachian State in Tuesday’s 6:30 p.m. contest on ESPN2 and still win the Sun Belt West title and advance to the championship game for a belated shot to wear the league’s crown.

But with the schedule including that giant hole of not having Coastal Carolina on it, all the focus turns to this showdown.

The Cajuns defeated Appalachian State for the first time last season on a very wet and freezing night in Boone, North Carolina. 

Now coach Billy Napier’s squad is hoping to prove it wasn't a fluke.

That’s a delicate proposition.

Does it mean the first one didn’t really happen if UL somehow loses Tuesday? Of course not.

The Cajuns clearly outplayed Appalachian State on the line of scrimmage last season. If not for some mishaps in the punt game, the Mountaineers wouldn’t have been so close late in that game.

That deep desire to beat Appalachian State again is just part of a maturing program. Before Napier arrived in Lafayette, the Mountaineers ruled the Sun Belt, and now that grasp is in some doubt.

Coastal Carolina (6-0, 2-0) hopes to assume the throne for the foreseeable future. The Chanticleers' next big chance to stake that claim comes Oct. 20 when they travel to Appalachian State.

The Cajuns (4-1, 2-0) also aspire to be kings of the Sun Belt hill one day real soon.

As much progress as the program has made over the last four seasons, that still hasn’t happened.

It’s what cut so deep last December when the COVID-19 issue in Coastal’s camp robbed UL of that opportunity.

It’s also what provides extra motivation to the 2021 Cajuns in preparation for Tuesday’s showdown on national TV.

Starting left tackle Ken Marks has been part of that quest for the last seven years. As good as last year’s road win felt, Marks’ comments last week showed a clear understanding of the task at hand.

“When I came into school, (Appalachian State was) already the top dog,” Marks said. “They ran the Sun Belt and we never could get over the threshold of beating those guys when coach Napier came into the program. So last year beating them was getting a monkey off your back, but still, they’re the standard.

“What are we against them? 1-8 or 1-9 all the years we’ve played them. So we’ve got a lot of catching up to do before we can say anything about overtaking them and try to get where they are as a program.”

The scary part for UL is the Mountaineers (4-1, 1-0) figure to be extra focused for Tuesday’s game. The Cajuns were more physical than App. State was last year, and that doesn’t often happen to the Mountaineers on their home field.

Something tells me that staff has reminded their players of that, oh, maybe a few hundred times since that game.

Even scarier, this proud program that basically just lined up and punched you harder in the mouth to seize the Sun Belt throne has now added a dynamic passing game to that traditional rushing attack.

It’s clear the Mountaineers have improved since last season. So far, there’s no reason to believe the Cajuns have.

Through the first five games, UL’s offense remains a work in progress, the defense has been good in key moments but has slipped some overall since last season and the kicking game is in major transition.

That’s an awful lot of uncertainty heading into the biggest game of the season.

Is it possible this enormous challenge will bring out the best in the Cajuns now that their best is required? Certainly that’s possible.

But it’s also necessary.

All the outside talk is the Sun Belt West is far behind the Sun Belt East.

UL has a singular opportunity to make a stand against that underlying criticism Tuesday at Cajun Field.

The Cajuns had Appalachian State on the ropes two years ago in Lafayette and let them off the hook.

This time, there’s no reason to hold anything back. Too much that doesn’t show up in the league standings is on the line here.

And there’s no question the Mountaineers are going to be more than ready.


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.