NEW ORLEANS — A good contingent of Louisiana-Monroe fans undoubtedly enjoyed themselves in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Saturday.
And they’d certainly like to return on Dec. 22, bringing several thousand more of their fellow Warhawks with them.
That’s the date of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the postseason destination of the Sun Belt Conference champion.
And right now, ULM looks as good a candidate as anyone to be just that.
“We’d love to come back; that’s for sure,” ULM Athletic Director Bobby Staub said after watching the Warhawks demolish Tulane, 63-10. “It would be phenomenal.
“Our fans would be so energized.”
They’re certainly bowl hungry.
Although the school made three appearances in the Division I-AA playoffs and won a national championship in 1987, its last bowl game was 65 years ago in the 1947 Junior Sugar Bowl in Monroe when ULM was still Northeast Junior College.
There hasn’t been a winning season since 1993, although three teams did finish 6-6, only to be passed over for bowl bids.
Sun Belt championship or not, that’s not likely to happen this time, in large part because of that energized fan base.
A 2-2 start might not sound like much to the rest of the college football world. But the Warhawks have become one of those annual Cinderella stories because the other victory was a 31-28 overtime stunner against then-No. 8 Arkansas in their opener.
The two losses were 31-28 in overtime at Auburn and 47-42 last week at home against Baylor before a Malone Stadium record crowd of 31,175.
That was enough to keep ULM receiving votes in the latest USA Today Coaches Poll, a status which should continue this week after Saturday’s commanding performance against the Green Wave that the Warhawks outgain the home team 553-151.
ULM was a 20-point road favorite Saturday, and played like it was every bit of that and more.
“It’s really an exciting time, and you have to go back to the championship year for anything like it,” said Frank Hoffman, now in his 37th year as ULM’s radio play-by-play man. “People like winners.
“But it’s also a classy team. And Todd Berry has brought a new perspective to the program.”
Berry might have seemed like an unlikely choice to lead a renaissance.
He’d last been a head coach at Army where in 2003 was 5-36 and in 2003 was fired in midseason when the Cadets were 0-7.
Berry spent the next two years at ULM as offensive coordinator and then made stops at Miami and UNLV before Staub tabbed him to replace Charlie Weatherbie in 2010.
“No. 1 Todd had been at my place, and he knew what we had and he knew what we didn’t have so he could work within those parameters,” Staub said. “No. 2, I thought what he possessed as an individual from an integrity standpoint, from an organizational standpoint and down the line.
“And lastly, what he’d done at Illinois State (24-24 from 1996-99) was more indicative of what he was capable of than what happened at Army, which was a very difficult situation at the time.”
Todd’s first team at ULM went 5-7 and last year the Warhawks were 4-8.
This year’s team, features 15 junior and senior starters, including fourth-year junior quarterback Kolton Browning, who was 15-21 for 253 yards and three touchdowns, all before the fourth quarter.
“There’s a lot of experience on this team, we all know the system and we all know and trust each other,” Browning said. “We did a great of preparing for this team, and we went out and executed today.
“As long as we keep playing with this mentality, we’re going to be where we want to be at the end of the season.”
Saturday’s victory was ULM’s first in three tries against Tulane, and it demonstrated the rise of the Sun Belt this year.
Combined with 27-point underdog Middle Tennessee’s 49-28 upset of Georgia Tech on Saturday, Sun Belt teams now have won 14 non-conference games, the most in league history, with six to play including Louisiana-Lafayette at home against Tulane next Saturday.
Sun Belt teams are 5-1 against Conference USA foes this season and 15-9 over the last two years, even though two Sun Belt schools, North Texas and Florida International are defecting to C-USA.
“The pecking order among what we call the non-AQ schools is being redefined,” Karl Benson, Commissioner of the New Orleans-based Sun Belt said Saturday from Boca Raton, Fla., where he was taking in the North Texas-Florida Atlantic game. “I think we’re doing a very good job of establishing ourselves.
“It shows how the league is maturing.”
As for the conference race this year, the rise of teams like ULM and Western Kentucky became only the second team in league history to go 3-1 in non-conference games by beating Southern Miss, Kentucky and Austin Peay while losing only to top-ranked Alabama has made things quite interesting.
ULM opens conference play next Saturday at Middle Tennessee, which has won three straight since losing its opener to McNeese State.
“There’s a lot of parity in this league,” Browning said. “Any team can win it.
“That’s what we’re shooting for.”