As loathe as they are to acknowledge it, UL’s football team and coaching staff are in an admirable position entering the final month of the Sun Belt Conference’s regular season.
The Ragin’ Cajuns, after last weekend’s open date, face a five-game gauntlet in 29 days to end the regular season, starting Saturday in their homecoming contest against Texas State. But in this case, gauntlet is not the right word.
In fact, according to ESPN’s analytics, the Cajuns’ remaining schedule — road games at Coastal Carolina and South Alabama and home games against Texas State, Troy and UL-Monroe — ranks as the easiest in the country. The combined power rating of those final five opponents is 130th out of 130 FBS teams.
This weekend, those teams went 0-3 with two open dates. The five teams are 4-12 in Sun Belt play and 13-24 overall, and none has a winning record.
It’s the kind of numbers that the Cajun veterans don’t necessarily want the younger players to hear.
“Most of the people who came in with me or a year after me, we know we’ve been plagued with that, talking too fast and talking too early,” said senior guard Kevin Dotson, who enters Saturday’s game on a streak of 45 straight offensive line starts. “You hear that talk about ‘Man, we’re good, we have so many athletes’ and stuff like that.
“You can be good and still not win, so you don’t want to put that in everybody’s head. It’s a balancing act. You want to be humble, but at the same time you want to celebrate and know that you are good.”
The Cajuns (5-2, 2-1) have been better than predicted through the first half of the season, and the predictions are even higher for the closing stretch. ESPN’s power index lists UL currently as a double-digit favorite in all five remaining games, including an 18½-point spread in Saturday’s 4 p.m. Cajun Field contest against the Bobcats (2-5, 1-2).
Most Las Vegas betting lines see it even more lopsided; UL opened as a 24-point home favorite Sunday.
ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) is a predictor of a team’s performance for the rest of the year, based on 10,000 simulations of the season’s remaining games, including a potential Sun Belt championship game. In that analysis, UL is a 12.6-point favorite at Coastal Carolina in a Thursday night game, a 26.5-point favorite Nov. 16 at South Alabama in the road finale, and 12.2- and 15.9-point favorite against Troy and ULM, respectively.
The Index’s “Win-Out Percentage” gives the Cajuns a 20.4 chance of winning all remaining games, including the league title game that will be hosted by the Sun Belt team with the highest winning percentage. Ironically, that “win-out” percentage is higher than Sun Belt front-runner Appalachian State, which has only a 12.1% chance of sweeping the rest of the season — mostly because the Mountaineers still have to play South Carolina and a surprising Georgia State team on the road on back-to-back weekends and also has to go to Troy to end the regular season.
App State, which made Sun Belt history Sunday by moving up to a No. 20 ranking in both the AP and coaches polls, is still given a 60.2% chance of winning the league championship game. The Cajuns are listed with a 36.5% chance, with Georgia State at 2.0% the next closest Sun Belt team.
Cajuns coach Billy Napier said nobody at UL is looking that far ahead.
“That’s why we go about it the way we do,” Napier said when talking about the open week. “We met with the team last Sunday evening and gave them a big-picture outlook for the next 14 days, this is what this is going to look like. One of the most important things we do is to try to compartmentalize it, break it up into chucks; here’s where we’re headed and what we need to do. And I think our kids have responded to that, and I think we need to continue to do that well in the future.”
The future according to the analytics give UL the highest probability of a 10-3 record including the Sun Belt title game; that would be the first time the Cajuns ever notched double-digit wins. If that happens, UL would likely move up in the index from its current No. 52 overall spot and its No. 9 spot among Group of Five conference teams behind five American Athletic Conference teams (Central Florida, Cincinnati, Memphis, SMU and Navy), two Mountain West teams (Boise State and Air Force) and Appalachian State.
None of those records and numbers include bowl games. The winner of the Sun Belt title game is locked into the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. If UL reaches the Sun Belt championship game but loses, there are reports that they’re being coveted by the Mobile, Alabama-based Dollar General Bowl.
“We’re not even thinking about any of that,” said Dotson. “We still have five games and we haven’t played our best game yet. Our best is ahead of us. There’s no complacency. We’re still hungry, it’s still the same goal and we still have a lot more to do.”