Nov. 30 is already circled on the calendars in both Lafayette and Monroe.
That’s when the Ragin’ Cajuns and the Warhawks will decide the Sun Belt Conference football title. At least, that’s the expectation if the league’s preseason coaches’ poll is to be believed.
Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe finished in a dead heat in the preseason poll released Monday as part of the Sun Belt’s annual media day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Both earned 57 points in the voting by the league’s eight coaches. ULL was picked first by four coaches, and ULM got two first-place votes and was picked no lower than second on seven of the eight ballots.
“Frankly, I would have been disappointed if we hadn’t been there,” ULM coach Todd Berry said, “because of the number of (returning) starters we have. There’s no question we’ve built this team for success this season.”
The Warhawks have 19 starters returning from the first winning season (8-5) in ULM’s FBS history, and that group combined for 252 starts in 2013 — the nation’s highest total of returning starts for this season. That group includes the league’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Kolton Browning, who said one ULM goal will be to not look ahead to a late-season Bayou State game deciding the Sun Belt title.
“It’s tough,” Browning said when asked about the poll, “but we can’t get caught up in getting ready for a rivalry game already. We have to make sure we’re just worried about Oklahoma right now.”
ULM opens Aug. 31 at the Sooners, the same day the Cajuns travel to Fayetteville to take on Arkansas in the first of seven road games on the ULL schedule.
“It’s the hardest schedule I’ve ever been a part of,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “I think maybe us and Monroe are the only two (FBS) teams to have only five home games. We start off with two teams (Arkansas and Kansas State) that may be in the Top 25, we only have two home games before November, and we’ve got two Tuesday night games. So it’s a scheduling nightmare. It makes it that much more challenging.”
Hudspeth has challenged his first two ULL teams and they have responded: 18 wins in two years, including back-to-back wins in the New Orleans Bowl.
In fact, he and Cajuns senior center Andre Huval took a moment before the formal start of Monday’s media day to walk the Superdome corridor and take a quick look at the field.
“We sort of feel like we’re at home here,” Hudspeth said of rehashing the 43-34 win over East Carolina last Dec. 22. “It brought back a lot of good memories.”
“It was neat just looking in there,” Huval said, “seeing the field, seeing the goal posts.”
The Cajuns return the Most Valuable Player from that game in quarterback Terrance Broadway, the former Capitol High standout who began 2012 as a backup to senior Blaine Gautier and moved into the starting role when Gautier was injured early in the season.
Broadway wound up leading the Sun Belt in total offense and passing efficiency in league games.
“It took a couple of games after Blaine got hurt for the team to come together around him,” Hudspeth said.
“But after that, we won four of our last five and almost beat Florida, and Terrance’s improvement was a big part of that. He’s not only talented, but he’s got the intangibles. ... He’s got good leadership skills, he’s a student of the game, and the great thing is we’ve got him two more years.”
Broadway is one of 14 returning starters for the Cajuns, but few have been on the field for as many plays as Huval, who has delivered all but 23 snaps over the most successful two-year span in ULL football history.
Huval was one of three Cajuns on the preseason all-league team announced Monday, joining defensive end Christian Ringo and linebacker Justin Anderson.
“To me, having Andre is like having an additional quarterback there,” Hudspeth said of the Scott and St. Thomas More product. “He has to do everything that Terrance has to do. ... He has to get everyone on the right page, see the schemes and identify the fronts.”
Huval was quick to point out that, despite the success of the past two years, the Cajuns have not won a Sun Belt title and have not cracked the Top 25. And he still has vivid memories of the 3-9 mark of his 2010 freshman season.
“An 11- or 12-win season will get you a conference title, get you ranked, get you in a bigger bowl,” he said. “We were two plays away from an 11-win season last year, but nobody remembers the team that almost beat Florida. You have to do it, and we’re focused on the little things that will help us do that.”
The team that won the past two outright league titles, Arkansas State, is picked third in the poll with 45 points and two first-place votes, while Western Kentucky was tabbed fourth with 44 points. Those top four teams all played in bowl games last season, the most in Sun Belt history.
“This league’s tough,” Berry said. “A lot of people are looking at us and Lafayette at the top of the poll, but there’s a lot of football to be played before that. I know it’s about where you finish, but trust me, it’s better for you to be ranked first than last.”
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