Cajuns face adjustment as unabashed Sun Belt favorites

They have become accustomed to the underdog role, and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth had his players relishing the “prove-them-wrong” role during his first two years as the Ragin’ Cajuns football coach.

Even last year, his team still had to share top honors in the preseason coaches poll with state rival UL-Monroe. Now the question for the 2014 season: Can the Cajuns perform from the front of the pack?

When the Sun Belt Conference holds its media day Tuesday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Hudspeth and UL-Lafayette offensive stalwarts Terrance Broadway and Alonzo Harris already will have a target on their backs.

The coaches poll was announced Saturday, and the Cajuns were a unanimous pick of the 11 league coaches. UL-Lafayette received the maximum 121 points in that poll, well ahead of the 102 Arkansas State landed. The Cajuns and Red Wolves shared the league title last season.

The league’s five new coaches — Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson and the four from new league members Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho and New Mexico State — must have been reading the preseason magazines. The Cajuns, coming off a third straight 9-4 season and a third straight victory in the New Orleans Bowl, were a unanimous pick by all of the major college football preview publications.

Those publications — Sporting News, Lindy’s, Athlon, USA Today and Phil Steele — still stopped short of predicting the Cajuns to reach the last of the goals Hudspeth set for his program when he took over before the 2011 season. They have reached and won bowl games for three years and won their first Sun Belt title since 2005 last season. But the fourth goal — a Top 25 ranking — is still out there.

“We set goals that we firmly believe we can reach,” Hudspeth said before last season. “We think we can be a Top 25 team.”

The closest the squad came to that list in the magazines that ranked all of the 124 Football Bowl Subdivision schools was No. 43 by USA Today. But Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson has been adamant that the league can put teams into the rankings — and even work their way into the conversation for the four-team College Football Playoff.

“There’s no reason that one of our teams can’t do what Boise State did,” said Benson, who was commissioner of the Western Athletic Confernce during Boise’s heyday.

To reach those lofty heights, a Sun Belt team would have to run the table in nonconference play. Boise State is one of the roadblocks this year: The Cajuns visit the Broncos on Sept. 20 after home games against Southern (Aug. 30) and Louisiana Tech (Sept. 6) and a trip to Ole Miss (Sept. 13).

The Cajuns open SBC play Oct. 4 vs. visiting Georgia State.