The Pressure is Still On

by Dan McDonald

Despite back-to-back, nine-win seasons capped by bowl victories, the Ragin' Cajuns are taking nothing for granted. It's human nature to expect more. Seeking greater goals is almost never a bad thing.

UL football coach Mark Hudspeth talks about his Ragin' Cajun squad getting into the national Top 25 this year.

Photos by Paul Angelle

QB Terrance Broadway

Senior center Andre Huval didn't bat an eye at the Sun Belt Conference's Media Day when he said the Cajuns are after a bigger and better bowl game this December or January.

Fans and followers in chat rooms and on talk shows were predicting double-digit wins for this season even before fall drills began.

The fall sessions that cover most of August will no doubt be accompanied by more forecasts for success, and that's to be expected after the greatest two-year span in the program's 112-year history.

"We want people to have high expectations," says Hudspeth, who rarely utters a sentence that doesn't include some type of motivational message. "The expectations around Lafayette have changed ... maybe we didn't write that down as one of our goals, but it's one of the things we had to do."

Expectations were virtually nil when Hudspeth took over following the 2010 season. UL had one winning season in the previous 15 years - at the time, the nation's second-longest Division I-A streak with only one plus-.500 campaign - and even the most optimistic in the Cajun Nation were showing signs of battle fatigue.

That all changed in 2011, when UL won all the close games, surprised more than one Sun Belt foe and went on to a 9-4 season. That included a first-ever Division I bowl appearance, and Cinderella got the storybook ending on Brett Baer's last-play 50-yard field goal that beat San Diego State 32-30 in the New Orleans Bowl.

Even though optimism had taken a quantum leap one year ago, the 2011 success could easily have been followed by a return to mediocrity. An awful lot of things went wrong last fall - a quarterback injury that would have devastated many teams, back-to-back conference losses and the first appearance of cracks in the wall of confidence that the Cajuns had built over the previous 21 months.

The fact that UL went 9-4 once again is a testament to an impressive coaching job by the Cajun staff, and it could have been even better.

"We were two plays away from an 11-win season," Huval said at Media Day, referring to last-minute losses at North Texas and Florida. "But nobody remembers the team that almost' beat Florida in the fourth quarter."

The Cajuns haven't let many of those get away over the past two years. With the exception of those two games, when they've had a chance to win in the final minutes, they've closed the deal every time. In large part, that's why fan optimism levels are sky-high as the Aug. 31 season opener nears.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's a difference between hopes for success and unreasonable expectations, and there are a lot of both swirling around the Cajun football program right now.

It is true that the Cajuns were picked by the Sun Belt coaches as co-favorite to win the league title, a first since UL went to true major-college status three decades ago. The new-look conference doesn't have the volume of quality teams this year. UL returns a big weapon in quarterback Terrance Broadway, and as UL Monroe coach Todd Berry said at Media Day, if you have a quarterback, you have a chance in today's college football world.

There's also still a reachable goal. Despite the recent successes, the Cajuns still don't have a Sun Belt trophy encased on Reinhardt Drive.

"That's the next step," Hudspeth says. "If we have a chance to compete for the Sun Belt title, we've probably won enough to get to a bowl game, so we've got to keep that focus, that tunnel vision, know that we're nowhere near where we want to be."
Hudspeth knows that red flags abound between now and December, and not those that the Cajun faithful fly and wear in support.

Head coach Mark Hudspeth and Athletic Director Scott Farmer celebrate last year's repeat Bowl victory in the Superdome.

Opening games against a revamped Arkansas team and an 11-2 Kansas State squad could be a rude awakening. The Cajuns play seven times on the road, and only five where Hudsepth has mandated a defense of the house (10-1 in two years at Cajun Field). UL has to go to both Western Kentucky and Arkansas State, both bowl teams last season, in a seven-day span of Tuesday-night games that Hudspeth calls scheduling nightmares.

The defense, one that was porous at times in both bowl seasons, has been re-tooled but remains untested. New faces and names are everywhere on a surprisingly young team. Of the 54 players listed on the "official" preseason depth chart, only 11 are seniors, and only six seniors are listed as starters.

In addition, after 18 victories in two seasons, the Cajuns won't sneak up on anyone like they might have done a couple of years ago, back when very few teams circled UL on their season calendars.

Remembering those not-that-long-ago struggles isn't hard, Huval says, and reinforcing those memories could determine whether UL becomes a one-hit wonder or churns out another in a string of successful hits.

"We feel like we've accomplished something," he said at Media Day. "But all of us that were here remember where we were. We remember 3-9. The toughest part is to relay that message to the younger players. ... They've got two rings, and they don't know what it was like to be picked 120th.

"We've never won the Sun Belt. The pressure's still on us."