Football: Can Napier's Ragin' Cajuns really run the table in 2020? 11 AM start time for Saturday
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Sept. 7, 2020
Long before UL’s 2020 football schedule underwent a major overhaul due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the whispers started.
But as time passed, the talk became less and less muted.
It wasn’t necessarily shouted from the mountaintop, perhaps because there is not much high ground for a team whose stadium – Cajun Field – sits below sea level.
But the conjecture could be heard nonetheless, both around the program and even on the downlow from a few inside who dared:
The Ragin’ Cajuns, their offense loaded with many of their stars returning and their defense seemingly sound again, have a shot at perfection this year, and a shot, too, at finishing as the top-ranked FBS Group of Five program.
It would require beating their Sun Belt Conference nemesis, Appalachian State. It would require knocking off a Power 5 program, something else that has proven problematic over recent years. And it would require no other slip-ups along the way.
It is really doable?
The quest starts soon.
On Saturday, coach Billy Napier’s Cajuns face a true test – opening in an ESPN-televised visit to nationally ranked Iowa State, which was No. 25 in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll and No. 23 in the AP preseason Top 25.
'TRYING TO GO 1-0'
The game was a late add, prompted by the pandemic, and without a doubt it makes the Cajuns’ hope for going undefeated tougher.
Yet the confidence level in Louisiana really is through the roof – “We’re gonna give them boys a good game. We’re gonna come out with a win,” running back Chris Smith said – and it’s been that way ever since the Cajuns closed last season by winning seven of their final eight.
By last spring, before the coronavirus cost UL 12 of its 15 practices in March and April, the idea of perfection was on the tip of Cajun tongues.
If not earlier than that.
Quarterback Levi Lewis danced around it, though, when asked last March if the Cajuns, who went 11-1 with a LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio) of the MAC a season ago, were listening to external talk about the possibility of running the table.
Related:Cajuns QB Lewis gets it
They do, after all, have the ground game to perhaps do it.
But Lewis didn’t exactly squash the suggestion either, instead speaking in generalities about the ever-so-trite notion of taking ’em one at a time.
“I feel like that’s kind of been my motto ever since I’ve been in high school – trying to go 1-0 each game,” said Lewis, who in 2016 played on a 13-1 state championship runner-up team as a senior at Baton Rouge’s Scotlandville Magnet High.
“So it really doesn’t matter what everybody’s saying on the outside. It’s all about ‘Are we a close-knit group?’ and ‘Are we together?’ and just knowing that we’ve got the same goal. Everybody knowing what we’re working for. That’s really all that matters – trying to go 1-0 every week.”
By mid-August, UL running back Trey Ragas was a bit blunter – and much more succinct.
“We’re trying to go undefeated,” Ragas said.
'THE SKY'S THE LIMIT'
By then, the Cajuns’ schedule had already lost a November non-conference game at Missouri (because the SEC decided to play a league-only schedule due to the virus) and added Saturday’s game at Iowa State.
The schedule also lost what was supposed to their season-opener last Saturday against Southland Conference-member McNeese along with a home game against Wyoming of the Mountain West and a road trip to FBS independent New Mexico State, but they’ve also added games Oct. 23 at Alabama-Birmingham of Conference USA and Nov. 21 at home against Central Arkansas, a nationally ranked FCS program from the Southland.
Just how tougher the non-conference slate became when losing four games but adding three with arguably better competition is open to debate.
In any event, beyond beating Iowa State of the Big 12 – the Cajuns are 0-13 against Power 5 programs since the start of the 2011-17 Mark Hudspeth coaching era – the elephant in the room remains Appalachian State.
The Mountaineers have owned UL since entering the Sun Belt from the FCS ranks, going 8-0, all since 2014, including four wins the past two seasons over Napier’s Cajuns, two of them in the SBC championship game.
So there’s that.
“This year the goal is to get over that large Appalachian State hurdle and take home the conference crown,” Phil Steele’s College Football wrote in its preseason preview of the Cajuns, “and this squad is fully capable of doing just that in 2020.”
So with Ragas and fellow standout running back Elijah Mitchell both back behind Lewis, ready to run through a line led by tackle Max Mitchell and guard O’Cyrus Torrence on the right side and returnee Shane Vallot at center, plus injured-most-of-last-year Ken Marks back at left guard, is this year the Cajuns finally can come out clean?
Only time will tell, and it all starts with a toughie at Iowa State.
“As a team,” Max Mitchell said late last month, “I think we have all the talent in the world.
“I think we have an exceptional leadership base here right now and I think we really have a shot in proving who we are.
“If we stick to our game plan, I think we’ll be just fine through the season. I think we can do whatever we want,” Mitchell added, “as long as we keep our heads right and keep our eyes set on the right thing.”
But with Iowa State waiting and Appalachian State looming – the Cajuns are scheduled to visit for an ESPN-televised, Wednesday-night game on Oct. 7 – will even that be enough?
Running back Ragas, for one, sure seems to think so.
“I mean, the sky’s the limit for the team,” he said, “and I really believe in this group.”