As his UL Ragin’ Cajuns football team prepares to open the 2019 season at 11 a.m. Saturday against Mississippi State in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, coach Billy Napier has made several things very clear about the matchup.
For starters, playing an SEC West-type opponent — even one that defeated his Cajuns 56-10 last season — isn’t something to run from. It’ll be a challenge Napier’s program will embrace moving forward.
“I’m really excited about it,” Napier said. “I wish we could do it each and every year. We want to compete against the best. I know obviously last year, we played some really elite Power Five teams and that didn’t go very well for us.
“But as we build this program, we’ve got aspirations to have one of the best, if not the best, Group of Five football program in the country and get in a position to where we can compete with Power Five programs. We welcome the challenge.”
Most fans are focused on the football side of college football.
Secondly, Napier doesn’t want to hear about the program’s past failures against SEC competition; UL is 0-44 against the nation’s elite football conference.
“That’s in the past,” Napier said. “That has nothing to do with this team. This is 2019, a completely different team. Nothing that’s happened in the past is going to have anything to do with what happens on Saturday.
“This is going to be this team against their team, and that’s all we’re worried about.”
Napier also doesn’t want to hear any complaining about Saturday’s 11 a.m. start, due to the game being televised on ESPNU.
“We can put the ball down in the parking lot; it doesn’t matter,” Napier said. “Put the ball down, tell us what time and we’ll go play. We’re fortunate that we play in a great venue. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the players on our team that maybe grew up having the ambitions to play in this place.
“But if you’re a competitor, it doesn’t matter. We could play at 12 midnight. These kids have worked their tails off, and they’re ready to compete. We look forward to the opportunity and embrace this challenge.”
At times during Jamal Bell’s first season at UL, it didn’t appear he was having much fun.
Napier is convinced the matchup against the Bulldogs will be a telling early test for his Cajuns, who were 7-7 a year ago.
“No, I think it’ll be better,” he said. “It’s going to expose some of the issues that we do have. No matter what the outcome is, it’ll be a good measure of where we’re at.”
Seemingly making the preparation more difficult for Napier and his staff is the recent news of Mississippi State’s three-run NCAA probation due to academic infractions. As a result, 10 unnamed Bulldogs will be suspended for this game. Napier isn’t overly concerned about that either.
“Certainly the matchups within the game are specific,” Napier said. “I don’t know if we’ve had lots of conversations about that. We know some things are going on, but we don’t know who those players are.
“So we’ll adjust once the game starts and we see who’s in the game. There could be some things that go with that, but for the most part, we’ll focus on yourselves, our preparation and how we go about our business.”
His actual game-week concerns are focused more on his team’s mental preparation.
There are some knowns for UL coach Billy Napier heading into Saturday’s 11 a.m. season opener against the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Me…
“Procedurally, we want to eliminate any issues, mostly undisciplined penalties, ball security, attacking the ball on defense, owning the football on offense and really making sure we’re clean from a procedure standpoint,” Napier said. “And then always concerned with tackling. We did a little bit of extra drill work (Wednesday). Those are the main things early on.”
A year ago, Mississippi State had the best scoring defense in the country and the No. 2 total defense. Only four starters return from that unit, but Napier is still expecting a monumental task.
“There will be a small margin of error out there Saturday,” he said. “It’ll be a great measure of where we’re at. They’ll be big, tall, long, fast, athletic and certainly well-coached.”
Defensively, UL’s biggest issue was getting off the field on third down. The Bulldogs offense hit on eight of 11 tries on third down and on its only fourth-down attempt.
Throughout August, the Cajuns’ staff has seen evidence of more talent and more depth on the defense.
It doesn’t take very long into an interview with Nick Ralston to notice his maturity level.
“For our team, the question at the beginning of the season is, “Who are we?” Napier said. “I know we have put this team through the gauntlet. It’s been a terrific offseason, but you don’t quite know until you’re in the fray, you’re in the fight, you're in the battle.
“This would be our first opportunity as a team to really compete and start creating our identity as competitors.”
Saturday also will be the first chance for both quarterbacks — UL junior Levi Lewis and Mississippi State senior Tommy Stevens — to prove themselves as full-time starters on the Division I level. In last year's meeting in Starkville, Lewis completed 2 of 5 passes for 21 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He also had two carries for 9 yards.
"The personnel’s different," Napier said comparing Saturday to last year's matchup. "Their personnel is going to be different. Our personnel is going to be different. The chemistry and all the work that we’ve invested since January. So two new teams with different identities and teams that are very much a work in progress, like most teams this time of the year."