ORLANDO, Fla. — One Louisiana team will leave the Sunshine State happy, and one will have a rough flight home.
Until then, it is really hard to separate Tulane (6-6) and UL-Lafayette (7-6) after remarkably similar seasons that have both programs pointed in the right direction, regardless of what happens Saturday at Camping World Stadium.
When first-year Cajuns coach Billy Napier talked Thursday about his team’s toughness and togetherness in recovering from a 1-3 start, it was easy to hear third-year Green Wave coach Willie Fritz uttering the same words. Actually, he had delivered a similar message when he preceded Napier on the podium at the Cure Bowl’s pregame presser and discussed the Wave’s turnaround from a 2-5 start.
Both coaches are proud of their team’s accomplishments. They also see better days ahead.
“We have tremendous leaders for the whole program, coaches and players alike,” Fritz said. “It’s been a battle. We were 2-5, but nobody lost sight of the goal for us, competing and getting into a bowl game. There’s no reason we can’t have a great football program at Tulane.”
Napier was next.
“We want to leave a legacy,” he said. “This is an opportunity to finish the season the right way and finish with eight wins, but more importantly I want players to see the benefit of their hard work.”
In so many ways, their seasons have been mirror images.
The Cajuns, who had followed four consecutive 9-4 seasons with three consecutive losing years under former coach Mark Hudspeth, were picked fourth out of five teams in the Western half of the Sun Belt Conference in the league’s preseason poll.
Napier, the offensive coordinator at Arizona State in 2017 and receivers coach at Alabama from 2013-16, guided them to a 5-3 conference record and a share of the division title, beating preseason favorite Arkansas State along the way.
If you think that sounds familiar, you’re right.
The Wave, which had averaged two wins in the American Athletic Conference through four years, was picked fifth out of six teams in the AAC West.
Fritz — whose losing records in his first two years at Tulane matched his total in 23 previous seasons as a college head coach — guided the Wave to a 5-3 conference record and a share of the division title, beating preseason favorite Memphis along the way.
The only difference: The Cajuns’ victory against Arkansas State was the tie-breaker between the two teams, propelling them into the Sun Belt title game at powerhouse Appalachian State. UL-Lafayette lost 30-19 but trailed by only 1 point late in the third quarter.
Tulane’s 40-24 victory against Memphis did not produce the same result because the Wave finished in a three-way with Memphis and Houston. With the teams going 1-1 in their head-to-head matchups, Memphis earned the tie-breaker and a date at Central Florida because it beat fourth-place SMU, while the Wave and Cougars lost to the Mustangs.
Tulane and UL-Lafayette play the same way, too.
The Cajuns average 229.1 yards rushing with a run/pass split of 502/344, counting sacks as pass plays.
The Wave averages 208.2 yards rushing with a run/pass split of 503/315.
The Cajuns have three running backs who have gained more than 700 yards, and the third guy, Raymond Calais, doubles as an excellent kickoff returner.
The Wave has two running backs who have gained more than 700 yards, and the third guy in the rotation, freshman Amare Jones, is an excellent kickoff returner.
Tulane specialized in big plays on offense, ranking 14th nationally with 36 gains of 30 yards or more.
UL-Lafayette rips off big chunks, too, ranking fifth with 19 rushes of 40 yards or more.
The Wave could have won more than six games if it had not played at Big Ten champion Ohio State, traveled to Conference USA winner UAB and lost in overtime to bowl-bound ACC member Wake Forest at home.
The Cajuns could have won more than seven without paycheck dates at Alabama and Mississippi State.
Napier, a 39-year-old head coaching newbie, and Fritz, a 58-year-old veteran, are curing what ailed their programs. They speak the same language and are producing the same results.
With most of their key starters returning next year, the Cajuns can return to the Sun Belt Conference championship game, where the experience they gained this year should help tremendously.
With an improved offense to complement what will be a loaded defense, Tulane should be in a much stronger position than it was this season. Fritz took the first step by hiring young, respected offensive coordinator Will Hall to add life to a unit that has ranked among the bottom five in the AAC statistically the past three years.
The winner Saturday will be happier in the short term.
The winner and loser are set up for long-term gratification.