Lewis: Ragin’ Cajuns are mighty comfortable atop the Sun Belt

While all of the other Sun Belt Conference coaches in their media day interview sessions Tuesday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome sat at communal tables with a handful of chairs alongside, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth was at a head table facing several rows of chairs and at least a dozen TV cameras.

With good reason.

All of a sudden, the Ragin’ Cajuns have become the flagship program in the SBC — winners of three straight New Orleans Bowls, a unanimous preseason pick for this year’s conference title and a trendy choice to be the first Sun Belt school to become what they used to call a BCS buster in the new College Football Playoff.

And did we mention UL-Lafayette was ranked No. 1 in baseball, made the Women’s College World Series in softball and had a top-10 pick in the NBA draft?

Or that a crowd in excess of 40,000 is expected for the Aug. 30 football opener against Southern at newly expanded Cajun Field?

Or that Hudspeth recently became the conference’s first $1 million-a-year coach?

Or that two hours after the rest of his SBC peers had departed Tuesday, Hudspeth was still doing radio interviews?

No wonder the Cajuns are first among equals in the league to which they’ve belonged since 1991.

And, befitting their newfound status, both Hudspeth and Athletic Director Scott Farmer were extolling the virtues of the Sun Belt on Tuesday instead of making semi-veiled comments about how the school belonged in a better situation.

“We’re in the toughest of the ‘Group of Five’ conferences,” Hudspeth said. “Last year, we had a better record than Conference USA, the Mountain West and the MAC, with seven teams who were eligible for bowls. And now we’re adding new teams to this already-tough conference. When someone says, ‘Coach, you’re adding two FCS teams (Appalachian State and Georgia Southern).’ Well, Conference USA is adding two teams (Old Dominion and Charlotte) that never played football.”

Hudspeth went on to point out the multiple FCS titles won by Appalachian State and Georgia Southern and even found something nice to say about perpetually downtrodden New Mexico State and Idaho, which rejoin the conference as football-only members this year: “They’re flagship schools in their states.”

Farmer then expressed fealty to league — or at least as much as you’ll get from anyone outside the “Power Five” these days.

“Our stance has been, ‘Yes, we’re happy in the Sun Belt,’ ” he said. “We work to better ourselves every single day and, if another conference comes calling, we’re going to listen. But we’re not out there pursuing to leave this conference; we’re not. This is a great conference, as evidenced this year, and we’re just trying to make our program as good a program as it can be.”

That’s a contrast from a couple of years ago, when seemingly the entire collegiate universe was going thorough realignment in the never-ending quest for upward mobility.

Conference USA, its ranks raided by the then-Big East (Tulane, Memphis, Tulsa, Houston, East Carolina, SMU and Central Florida) picked off SBC members North Texas, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky, plus — much to the chagrin of UL-Lafayette fans — Louisiana Tech from the WAC.

The Cajuns, for financial and market-size issues, didn’t make the cut.

Ouch. That hurt.

But now that the dust has settled, C-USA and the Sun Belt don’t look much different.

They share roughly the same footprint, and there’s certainly not a C-USA school that can boast of UL-Lafayette’s recent level of success and passionate fan following.

In fact, if you took the 25 football-playing schools in the leagues and divided them at the Mississippi River, you’d have 13 in the East and 12 in the West, a natural split endorsed by SBC Commissioner Karl Benson when he took the position in 2012.

And Farmer as well.

“I’d agree with that 100 percent,” he said. “You’d have two great leagues. One of the crazy parts of this conference realignment is that we’ve lost our natural geographic rivalries. Everybody’s chasing the dollars, even though I don’t necessarily think they’re out there. Being in a conference that’s more in our footprint would be good for us.”

Unfortunately, egos aren’t going to let that happen anytime soon. And as upwardly mobile as UL-Lafayette seems these days, the Big 12 isn’t going to come calling, either.

So the Cajuns are left with the alternative of being the best they can be. Which is pretty good.

The athletic complex is a permanent construction site with a performance center for all sports nearing completion along with the stadium expansion, part of a $115 million master plan for athletics introduced by Farmer a year ago.

On the field, the Cajuns look primed for the season their fans could have only dreamed of in the past. The early schedule — at Ole Miss and at Boise State — presents a golden opportunity to go to the forefront in the quest for the automatic berth to either the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl. That spot goes to the top-ranked team from the “Group of Five” conferences as determined by the same selection committee that will pick the four playoff teams.

“That is way, way from my mind right now,” Hudspeth said. “We’ve got the SWAC champion in our opener, and we’re taking it one day at a time, one practice at a time and one day at a time. We can’t afford to think about grander things.”

But, in almost the next breath, Hudspeth did.

“Another step for us is to win the conference outright, to win all of our home games and to continue to go to bowl games and to win bowl games,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to be a Top-25 team year in and year out.

“We look at the models of Boise State and TCU and Louisville. We’re not there yet, but you’ve got to set your expectations high and your goals higher.”

Sun Belt Conference, the ante has just been upped.