Most college football teams with 4-5 records are looking to reach six wins and bowl eligibility, and the majority of teams with 2-3 league marks aren’t thinking about conference championship games and league titles.
Because it's playing in the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division, that’s not the case for UL-Lafayette. In fact, the Cajuns control their own destiny and enter a stretch of three regular-season-ending games in which they’ll be favored or at least an even bet.
If they win all three, they’ll be an unexpected championship-game participant.
“We’ve positioned ourselves where the end of the season matters,” said Cajuns coach Billy Napier, whose team welcomes Georgia State (2-7, 1-4) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Cajun Field. “I think that’s important. It’s unique because we have a number of conference losses, but it still matters relative to the title and the championship game.”
The Cajuns (4-5, 2-3) are one game behind UL-Monroe (5-4, 3-2) in the West Division. Those two teams meet in Monroe in two weeks, and that game could well decide who represents the West in the Sun Belt’s inaugural championship game Dec. 1.
Both teams still have work to do before that becomes a reality, but UL-Lafayette is a two-touchdown favorite over the Panthers on Saturday and will likely be the same next weekend when the Cajuns host South Alabama (2-7, 1-4) in the home finale.
“We always look at it one game at a time, take care of the next team first and move on,” said linebacker Ferrod Gardner, the Cajuns’ leader with nine tackles in last week’s 26-16 loss at Troy. “But coach Napier told us we have the pen in our hand and we can write our own destiny, and we believe in that.
“It’s a playoff vibe, win or go home, so we’re going to treat this one like a playoff game.”
The Cajuns may need that against the Panthers in the first meeting between the squads since 2015 thanks to the alternating Sun Belt schedule. UL-Lafayette has never lost to Georgia State, but the past two games have been decided by a total of five points.
Georgia State has lost four in a row, but that’s not from a lack of offense. In fact, dual-threat quarterback Dan Ellington has helped the Panthers average 460 yards and more than 33 points per game in the past three outings. Ellington ranks third in the Sun Belt in passing and total offense and is GSU’s leading rusher with 471 yards and five TDs.
Backup quarterback Aaron Winchester threw for 112 yards and rushed for 37 more, scoring a touchdown both ways in last week’s 40-31 home loss to Texas State.
“They do some things really well on offense, especially at the quarterback position,” said cornerback Koa Haynes of the GSU quarterbacks. “They’re both skill guys that like to run, that’ll be a challenge for us.”
“Both (Ellington) and (Winchester), they’re versatile,” Gardner said. “We have to stop the pass and stop the run.”
That’s been a struggle for the Cajuns, who rank 125th nationally in third-down defense (Georgia State is 124th) and have given up more than 400 yards in seven of their past eight games.
They also have to contend with junior Penny Hart, last year’s Sun Belt leader in receptions and yards and the No. 4 career receiver in league history. The speedy Hart, who also handles kick returns, enters the weekend as the nation’s leader in career receiving yards per game (81.5).
“They’ve got terrific skill folks,” Napier said. “Their O-line is young but you can see they’re making improvement and running the ball more effectively, and they’ve got dynamic people that we have to contain at all times.”
Opponents have run into similar issues containing the Cajuns offense, which ranks second in the Sun Belt and is the league’s most balanced (1,957 rush yards, 2,037 pass yards). That’s been especially true at home — UL-Lafayette has put up 113 points and more than 1,300 offensive yards in its past two Cajun Field appearances, including a 47-43 upset of Arkansas State two weeks ago that put the Cajuns in control of their destiny in the West.
“We’re definitely going to have to find a way to shore up some defensive effort to control their offensive team,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott. “(The Cajuns) are big and physical up front and can move people off the football, and, when you can do that, that’s a concern. They’ve got downhill runners, and their quarterback puts them in a good situation. They’ve got a lot of dangerous talent.”
Trey Ragas, the Sun Belt’s second-leading rusher, had his fifth 100-yard game of the season with 106 yards and two scores against Troy. He’ll also benefit from the hoped return of backfield mate Elijah Mitchell, who missed the Troy game with a neck injury suffered in practice and a game-time decision for Saturday.
Ragas has 840 rush yards this season and Mitchell 565, and both have eight rushing scores.
“We know we have a lot of offensive weapons,” Gardner said, “and coach Napier knows how to use them and make everyone look like a superstar. As a defense, we want to pitch a shutout, but we know our offense can put up points and that’s a relief for us. That works both ways, we have to hold our own, but we appreciate that offense.”