Football: UL schedule may be tougher, but will it all be played?
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Aug. 24, 2020
The Ragin’ Cajuns lost four non-conference games, added three, wound up with 11 total games instead of 12 and now have a schedule that – despite the loss – may have gotten a tick or two tougher.
If, that is, they get to play the games all.
And because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, UL athletic director Bryan Maggard wouldn’t be surprised if they lost a couple along the way.
“Good Lord willing we’ll be able to play all … 11 of these games,” he said.
“I think we all … need to be very mindful of, and be prepared for, the fact that we may have to cancel a game or two, right? It could be more. Hopefully not. Hopefully none.
“But we need to be prepared for that, whether it’s (because of an) outbreak on our team or the opponent’s team,” Maggard added last Friday, one day after UL announced it had added games Oct. 23 at Alabama-Birmingham and Nov. 21 at home against Central Arkansas to go with what is now their new season opener Sept. 12 at No. 25 Iowa State. “That’s a very practical reality for this season.”
The Cajuns opened their preseason camp earlier this month with no players positive for the virus or in quarantine.
But with some FBS conferences canceling or rearranging their fall schedules, UL lost home games at McNeese and Wyoming and ones at New Mexico State and Missouri.
The scramble wasn’t easy for Maggard, whose duties during the latter part of his 21 years spent in the Missouri athletic department before taking over at UL in 2017 included assisting with football and scheduling matters.
Perhaps the hardest part: finding teams willing to play the Cajuns, who last season went 11-3 with a LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio) of the MAC.
“We would have been open to playing 12 games,” Maggard said, “but it got to a point where the options – between teams not available, and teams not willing to play who were available – went away.
“I know Coach (Billy) Napier is comfortable with opening up at Iowa State on the 12th, so we’re OK with it.”
The failure to find an opponent to replace McNeese on Sept. 5 wasn’t because the Cajuns only were willing to play at home that day.
“I couldn’t find any,” Maggard said.
“This was the most-challenging scheduling experience I’ve ever had. I guess it’s the trials of an 11-3 season.”
Maggard suggested he really did try for 12.
“For me,” he said, “my desire really centered around wanting our student-athletes to have the full season experience.
“But we also know we’ll be very fortunate, probably, to get through 10 games, 11 games, what have you.
“In a perfect world we would have 12, (with) one more home game,” Maggard added, “but it just didn’t work out that way.”
'A MUCH BETTER OPTION'
The Cajuns instead now have six road games and five at home, with the first of those not until Sept. 26 against Georgia Southern.
Before then, UL starts with its game against the Cyclones and opens Sun Belt Conference play Sept. 19 at Georgia State.
The Cajuns will receive $350,000 for the Iowa State game.
According to Maggard, there’s no guaranteed money for the newly added road game at UAB of Conference USA – a team the Cajuns also still plan to play against twice in a previously scheduled future home-and-home series.
But the Blazers, Maggard said, “will help” the Cajuns with “travel costs.”
“So it will cost us a little something; it will cost them a little something,” he said.
Considering the cost of staging a home game, and the unique circumstances prompted by the coronavirus crisis, the Cajuns don’t mind traveling to Birmingham, Maggard suggested.
“Really, at the end of the day,” he said, “when you compare the financials of a potential payment to a team to come into your home and expenses associated with operating a game, from a financial sense, this is a much better option for us.”
'THE WOES OF ... AN 11-WIN SEASON'
By essentially replacing New Mexico State and Wyoming with UAB, the Cajuns didn’t make things easier on themselves.
NMSU, an FBS independent, went just 2-10 last season while Wyoming of the Mountain West finished 8-5 in 2019 with a win over Missouri and another over Texas State of the Sun Belt but a non-conference loss to Tulsa and an Arizona Bowl win over Georgia State.
UAB, meanwhile, went 9-5 last year with non-conference wins including ones over MAC member Akron and Sun Belt member South Alabama but losses to Florida Atlantic in the C-USA championship game and in the Orleans Bowl to Sun Belt-champ Appalachian State, which finished the season ranked as high as No. 19.
So that two-for-one tradeoff is perhaps a push, or arguably a tad tougher.
In trading McNeese of the Southland Conference for Central Arkansas, the Cajuns replace a team that went 7-5 last season, but that for probationary reasons wouldn’t have been eligible for the FCS playoffs even if they had been held this season, with last year’s Southland co-champs, a program that went 9-4 including a win over FBS-member Western Kentucky, went to the 2019 FCS playoffs and is ranked No. 11 nationally in the preseason FCS Top 25.
So that’s another one that arguably got a bit harder.
Then there’s the biggie.
SEC-member Missouri went 6-6 last season and lost five of its final six, denying the Tigers a bowl bid.
Mizzou did beat West Virginia of the Big 12 and Troy of the Sun Belt, but it also lost its season opener at Wyoming.
And Iowa State did drop four of its last six in 2019, including a Camping World Bowl loss to Notre Dame.
But the Cyclones knocked off then-No. 22 Texas in November, and expectations for them – evidenced by the No. 25 ranking in the Amway Coaches Poll, and a No. 23 ranking in the AP preseason Top 25 – are quite high.
So did things truly get tougher?
Perhaps not exponentially, but surely somewhat, or so it seems.
“You know what?” Maggard said when asked if things got hard for Napier and the Cajuns. “At the end of the day we got what we could get.
“It’s probably the woes of coming off an 11-win season. And I’ll take that problem any day. But there were not many people interested in playing the Ragin’ Cajuns.”
'READY ... TO PLAY ANYBODY'
Tougher or not, the Cajuns – especially at this point, amid a summer of much uncertainty – simply are happy they have a schedule at all.
“I’m ready just to play anybody, honestly,” receiver Peter LeBlanc said. “I really don’t care who we play. I just want to play, you know? I think that’s kind of how we all are.”
Even when preseason camp opened, and they had no idea who would be on their non-conference schedule besides the fact Missouri was out, they really weren’t worried about it.
“What I’m so proud of our players for is that hasn’t been the concern,” defensive coordinator Patrick Toney said then. “The concern has been getting better under the circumstances that we’re under.
“I think our guys have done a good job of tuning that out and focusing on the process.”
The message from Cajun coaches when camp started?
“Stay ready so we don’t get to have get ready,” Toney said.
“We’ll worry about the Cajuns,” offensive coordinator Rob Sale added at the time, “and we’ll look up and we’ll worry about the opponent then.”
And when they looked up and saw Iowa State instead of Missouri?
Truth be told, the Cajuns loved it.
“They’re not any chopped liver,” linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill said. “We have to come prepared, and I think we will. That will be a good game.”
“It’s big for our program. The progress we have made since Coach Napier has been here, it’s amazing. So, as a team, we’re honestly ready for the challenge,” cornerback Jayrin Wilson added with reference to opening against a nationally ranked Big 12 team. “We can’t wait for our first game to prove that, being in the Sun Belt, we really can battle with anybody.”