The Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns were hoping to make a big-time splash in 2013 but came out of the gate slow, losing big in their two marquee non-conference road games to start the season 0-2. They bounced back to win the next eight games and clinch the Sun Belt Conference title before losing their final two regular season games. They bounced back in bowl season, however, defeating the Tulane Green Wave in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl to finish the year 9-4, falling a bit short of the team’s lofty preseason expectations.
Now, the Cajuns return basically their entire team for 2014 and will be looking to break through into double-digit wins this fall. ULL struggled to create the big plays that helped them break out in 2012 last season and will be looking for their veteran playmakers to open things up this season. Can the team recapture their big-play mojo and defend their spot atop the Sun Belt with an experience-heavy roster?
The Cajuns utilize a balanced offensive attack that is keyed by their three-year starter under center Terrance Broadway. The senior acts as a dual-threat attack for ULL, though his rushing numbers dipped dramatically in 2013. After averaging 6.46 yards per carry with nine rushing touchdowns in 2012, Broadway managed just 3.47 yards per carry last season as he racked up 455 yards but still scored eight rushing touchdowns. In addition, he completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 2,419 yards with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
At running back, the Cajuns are stacked with talent and could run four or five players deep in their backfield rotation. The group will be led, however, by the duo of senior Alonzo Harris and sophomore Elijah McGuire. Harris is a steady, consistent, bruising back and led the team with 942 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. McGuire, on the other hand, is a flashier option as he averaged 8.3 yards per carry as a freshman in 2013 as he picked up 853 yards and eight touchdowns while also catching 22 passes for 384 yards and another three touchdowns receiving.
Wide receiver is one of the few places on the offense where the Cajuns lose a major contributor. Darryl Surgent finished second on the team last season with 31 receptions for 400 yards and five touchdowns and will have to be replaced in 2014. Luckily for ULL, they can rely on their leading receiver from last season, Jamal Robinson, to step in as a leader after catching 54 passes last season for 862 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. Look for James Butler to see an expanded role after catching 26 passes for 363 yards and a touchdown last season.
The defensive front for ULL struggled to stay on the field in 2013 with injuries ripping through their depth chart. While this hurt the team last season, it could help them in 2014 as the unit returns healthy and deep thanks to the experience gained a year ago. Basically every linemen returns for the Cajuns, led by Dominique Tovell at defensive end and Justin Hamilton at nose tackle. Tovell led the team in 2013 with 11.5 tackles for loss while Hamilton led the team with four sacks.
At linebacker, the team returns a similar level of depth, though they lose their leader in the middle in Justin Anderson. Anderson led the team with 103 tackles last season, including 11 tackles for loss, an interception, and three forced fumbles. The group will have to rally together to replace his leadership and production at middle linebacker, led by sophomore Al Riles and junior Chris Hill. Riles showed an ability to create turnovers in 2013 with an interception and a forced fumble while Hill was able to get after the quarterback, recording two sacks.
The secondary returns completely intact in 2014 looking to build off their experience in a rough 2013 campaign. The Cajuns allowed too many big plays through the air last season and will have to tighten things up this fall. Look for free safety Sean Thomas to be more active after leading the team with three interceptions last season and cornerback Trevence Patt to develop into a lock-down corner after breaking up 12 passes in 2013.
The Cajuns’ schedule sets up nicely for them to once again contend for a Sun Belt title in 2014. They have their usual pair of daunting non-conference road games this year, traveling to play the Ole Miss Rebels and Boise State Broncos in back-to-back weeks to close out their non-conference schedule. There’s an opportunity to make a splash there, for sure, but the more likely outcome is a 2-2 record as they hit the conference slate.
In Sun Belt play, they get their two biggest challenges, the Arkansas State Red Wolves and South Alabama Jaguars, at home giving them an edge over their leading conference title rivals for this season. They have a challenging stretch of four straight road games to close out the regular season, but none of them coming against a team that won more than six games last season.
With the amount of talent returning and the sustained success of the program over the last two seasons, it’s hard to imagine the Cajuns falling short of their nine-win total from a year ago. They could conceivably run the table in Sun Belt play and finally break through that nine-win ceiling, breaking into double digit wins. Look for ULL to look strong in SBC play, winning 10 or 11 games in 2014.