USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
There's nothing technically wrong with the New Orleans Bowl, a postseason event that serves as a fair and just reward for regular-season successes – say, nine wins and the Sun Belt Conference championship. It's just that Louisiana-Lafayette wants more.
That the program is no longer satisfied with nine wins and annual postseason participation – the horror – is indicative of Mark Hudspeth's impact on what was previously one of college football's do-nothings: Louisiana-Lafayette's still an underdog, befitting its Sun Belt roots, but Hudspeth has given the Ragin' Cajuns some bite.
Now's the time to do more. Hudspeth's nine-win debut remains one of the great coaching achievements in Sun Belt history; his nine-win follow-up neared the debut's equal in cause for celebration; last year's nine-win finish continued the trend at the expense of an win-column uptick, leaving two regular-season wins on the field in November.
Now or never, perhaps, if you buy into the idea that Hudspeth's days in Lafayette are numbered. Schools are paying attention: Hudspeth has 27 wins in three years at a program that won 44 games during the decade prior to his arrival. At this point, as he enters year four, the only thing higher than Hudspeth's stock are his numbers on the bench press.
And the team is primed for more. The Cajuns return 17 starters, the most in the Sun Belt. ULL was the consensus pick to win the Sun Belt, earning all 11 first-place votes in the preseason media poll. The preseason all-conference team features eight Cajuns, including the entire offensive backfield – yes, the quarterback and both running backs.
The window isn't closing, not necessarily, but the clock is ticking. Hence the expectations: ULL wants – and needs – to make the most of the opportunity for a breakthrough. For the first time in program history, nine wins might be viewed as a disappointment.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
But this is a team with obvious 10-win potential should it land an upset win in September and settle a few lingering concerns before heading the meat of SBC play: right tackle, the fourth and fifth wide receiver, rush defensive end, cornerback. I'd be very surprised if the Cajuns don't end the year with at least eight wins and atop the Sun Belt standings.
In a nutshell: Another nine-win season for Hudspeth and the Cajuns, who cruised through Sun Belt play to essentially secure a piece of the conference title by mid-November but went on cruise control until the postseason, costing the program its first double-digit-win season as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Perhaps there's a lesson here: ULL was sluggish in a loss to Louisiana-Monroe and totally listless against South Alabama, with those losses showing that for all the program's gains – and there have been some major gains – it is not quite at the point where it can simply show up and win against upper-half conference competition. The sour taste of a sloppy close was removed somewhat with a New Orleans Bowl victory against Tulane, another in-state program making substantial strides, giving ULL a boost of confidence heading into the offseason.
High point: Topping Arkansas State. The head-to-head tiebreaker gave ULL the Sun Belt title.
Low point: Losses to ULM and South Alabama to cap the regular season.
Tidbit: ULL is one of 12 programs in the FBS to have at least nine wins in each of the past three seasons. The others: Alabama, Cincinnati, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, Nebraska, Northern Illinois, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Stanford.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Iron-pumping FBS coaches
1. Mark Hudspeth
2. Charlie Strong
3. Larry Fedora
4. Bronco Mendenhall
5. Steve Addazio
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: This offense has every tool needed to lead the Sun Belt in each major statistical category. Begin at quarterback, where Terrance Broadway stands as the perfect triggerman for Hudspeth's friendly system. His production is nearly guaranteed; Broadway enters his third year as the Cajuns' starter with a concrete understanding of the scheme, which can't be overlooked, and has the dual-threat ability to stand as the league's best at the position. But there's a catch: ULL needs Broadway to be healthy. We saw this down the stretch last fall, when ULL dropped games to ULM and South Alabama without Broadway under center – he injured his arm during the loss to the Warhawks and missed all of the finale against the Jaguars. When healthy, however, Broadway is as good a fit for his specific system as any quarterback in the country. As we enter fall camp, Broadway is the preseason favorite for the league's offensive player of the year.
The backfield as a whole stands heads and shoulders above the rest of the Sun Belt. In addition to Broadway, the Cajuns return running backs Alonzo Harris (942 yards and 14 touchdowns) and Elijah McGuire (863 yards), superb players individually who work even better in concert. Harris, a senior, does the dirty work inside the box; McGuire, a sophomore, churns out yards in bunches off the corner. The latter adds substantial production and explosiveness through the air, as illustrated in his 80-yard grab in last year's win against Georgia State. Broadway, Harris, McGuire … it's almost unfair. While they only see the field in certain packages, juniors Effrem Reed and Torrey Pierce are reliable in small doses.
The receiver corps does need to replace Darryl Surgent, though his loss will be felt more painfully on special teams. By and large, Broadway will have the same lead tools as his disposal: Jamal Robinson (54 receptions for 862 yards) returns, as does James Butler (26 for 363), with this pair clearly leading the charge in the passing game – with Robinson among the Sun Belt's best. But the Cajuns do need to address the second tier of the depth chart, adding weapons to the top pair, and should do so with some combination of converted defensive back Al Riles, sophomores Lance Pace, Devin Scott and Jared Johnson, and JUCO transfers C.J. Bates and Dylan Bossier. Making sure Broadway has four or five consistent options in the passing game should be one of Hudspeth's top priorities during fall camp.
Defense: Based on the returning talent and experience, the Cajuns' defense should likewise rank among the best in the Sun Belt – the offense is better, perhaps by more than just a step or two, but the defense has the personnel to carry its fair share of water during conference play. The three-man front is largely intact, though there's a hole at tackle: ULL needs to find a replacement for Brandon McCray, and could go with a number of different options depending on down and distance. On early downs, ULL could lean toward 385-pound redshirt freshman Sherard Johnson, who could be imposing in a small role, and 325-pound sophomore Jacoby Briscoe. Another option – likely one used on passing downs – would be to go lighter, sliding sophomore Remaine Douglas and senior Marvin Martin as hybrid end-tackles, in a sense. But the top trio is set: Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton are all-conference caliber and junior Marquis White, the new addition to the starting lineup, has fared well in a reserve role. If Ringo is healthy – and I don't believe he ever was last season – his tandem with Hamilton will be difficult for the SBC to handle.
The star of the second level is a hybrid, junior Dominique Tovell (67 tackles, 12.0 for loss), who will often fill a role that plays to his pass-rush abilities – though he needs to do a better job sealing the deal – while putting his 245-pound frame in space, where his athleticism is a clear asset. But unlike last fall, Tovell may be used more on the strong side, ceding a portion of those hybrid responsibilities to senior Jake Molbert – though I see ULL moving Tovell around in an effort to create mismatches up front. This pair will flank senior Trae Johnson (32 tackles) and junior Chris Hill (39 tackles), but I imagine the Cajuns' staff is going to find a way to get former LSU transfer Trey Granier into the mix as the top reserve linebacker. The unit as a whole is a touch less impressive without Justin Anderson, last year's starter in the middle, but remains among the top three in the Sun Belt.
When it comes to the Sun Belt, only Arkansas State can tout a stronger back seven – though, to be fair, the Red Wolves' back seven is a full step ahead of the Cajuns' version. ULL's secondary comes close, however, particularly among the top four. The biggest change – and it's a great idea – has senior Trevance Patt (57 tackles) moving from cornerback to strong safety, where he'll team with senior free safety Sean Thomas (63 tackles, 3 interceptions) to solidify the back end. The Cajuns' third returning starter, senior Corey Trim (45 tackles), will be joined at cornerback by sophomore Dominick Jones, a relative neophyte. That's a bit of an issue, I'd say, but the Cajuns could always turn the job over to JUCO transfer Antoinne Adkins and make Jones the defense's third or fourth option on the outside.
Special teams: Hunter Stover should wrestle away kicking duties from Stephen Brauchle, though the latter could conceivably be used in certain field-goal situations. The punter spot's in solid hands with senior Daniel Cadona, but the kicking game as a whole is ULL's greatest weakness. Let's just say the same of the entire special teams: ULL will not hold the advantage in or out of conference play.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: To be precise: center. The other four spots are secure – decided in personnel and very secure in production – but a hole does exist in the middle, where the Cajuns must replace a leader in Andre Huval. Initially, the staff had thoughts of moving senior Terry Johnson over from left guard, where he started last season; this plan changed after Johnson was slowed by injury during spring drills. Though Johnson could conceivably slide over in a pinch, the pre-fall plan has ULL auditioning redshirt freshman Grant Horst – way too undersized at this point to be a full-time contributor, I think – and JUCO transfer Eddie Gordon. Replacing Huval will be a major task, but the Cajuns have to feel good about the players surrounding the new starter. ULL will flank Gordon – I'm assuming he eventually nabs the job – with Johnson and senior right guard Daniel Quave, the latter likely the Sun Belt's best interior lineman. On the outside, Broadway's blind side will again be protected by junior Mychal Quave, who I think will improve in his second season at left tackle, while junior Octravian Anderson returns at right tackle.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Arkansas State: Want to win your first outright conference title since 1970? Then beat the Red Wolves – and the Red Wolves aren't going away quietly. But for a team with grander plans, of visions beyond a simple Sun Belt title, games against Mississippi and Boise State provide the opportunity for national noise and a national ranking. Both are on the road, however, and in extremely hostile environments to boot.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Don't even ask the question: Yes, Louisiana-Lafayette is the class of the Sun Belt. A better question would pose where the Ragin' Cajuns stand in the historical perspective of the Sun Belt; I'd suggest that, on paper, this looks like one of the best teams in conference history. They'll play the games, the Cajuns will win some and lose some, but this is certain: ULL has everything you'd need – outside of a kicking game – to no just win the Sun Belt title but dominate. Expectations are high, and they're high for a reason.
There's so much to adore. The offense is simply spectacular, with no flaws, very few weaknesses and a number of overwhelming positives – the Cajuns have the league's best quarterback, best running backs, best offensive line and a top-three receiver corps. The defensive back seven trails Arkansas State, true, but no other defense in the conference matches the Cajuns' top-to-bottom personnel consistency. In the Sun Belt, the Cajuns are the total package. Anything less than seven wins during league play and the outright crown would be a massive disappointment.
Perhaps it's time to dream a little bigger. Games against the Rebels and Broncos will help put this team on the map, should the Cajuns notch an upset. But those are the only games where ULL can adopt a moral-victory approach – the idea that a close loss, if tightly contested, is nothing to sneeze at. The rest must be viewed as not just winnable; the Cajuns need to look at the remaining 10 contests as must-win. There's going to be slipup along the way, I'd say, but ULL should notch 10 wins altogether and challenge for a national ranking – but won't earn a spot in the top 25 without a win against one of those two non-conference foes.
Dream season: The Cajuns go 11-1, losing to Mississippi in September but running the table to earn a national ranking.
Nightmare season: ULL goes 8-4 and finishes tied for second in the Sun Belt.
Who's No. 39? This program's losses have come by an average of 13.6 points since its current coach joined the program.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014