Cajuns have 'bigger ambitions' than mere bowl-eligibility
With their 48-38 win over South Alabama on Saturday night, the rebuilt Ragin’ Cajuns became bowl-eligible.
It’s no easy thing, no matter how much that might have seemed to be the case when UL went to the New Orleans Bowl for four straight years from 2011 through 2014.
Consider that when the Cajuns went in 2011, it marked their first appearance in a postseason game of any sort since falling to Tennessee State at the 1970 Grantland Rice Bowl in Baton Rouge — which really wasn’t a bowl in the traditional sense that they are now as much as it was a regional championship game back then.
Consider that UL went bowling just once in three seasons from 2015 through last year, losing to Southern Mississippi in the 2016 New Orleans Bowl.
And consider that while the Sun Belt Conference does have six of its 10 teams bowl-eligible so far this season, the now 6-5 Cajuns were the sixth to get there — doing so in their 11th of 12 regular-season games.
So when UL made it Saturday night, it should have been cause to party hearty, right? Especially in the Louisiana, where it typically doesn’t take much to get the good times rolling.
Yet beyond the usual post-game singing and a few fireworks, that didn’t exactly seem to be the case.
Maybe it’s because just six wins and bowl-eligibility does not necessarily guarantee UL an actual bowl bid this year, which is something the Cajuns have been bit by in the past.
With six league teams bowl-eligible and just five bowls with a Sun Belt tie-in, one from the conference could find itself without a bid. Seven wins should do it, though.
Or perhaps it’s because the Cajuns have a bigger mission in mind.
Getting to, and winning, the first-ever Sun Belt championship game, which they can do now by winning this Saturday at UL Monroe, which also is 6-5 following a 31-17 loss at Arkansas State, and claiming first place in the Sun Belt’s West Division.
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“We check the box,” first-year UL coach Billy Napier said when asked about bowl-eligibility.
Well, sort of.
“I mean, this group of players — we’ve got bigger ambitions,” Napier said, trying to explain the relative nonchalance. “I think at some point or another we made the decision, ‘We’re gonna be bowl-eligible. We’re gonna find a way to get that done.’”
Almost as if it was a given that it would happen, a mileage marker to pass with more to come.
“That’s what we did (last Saturday),” Napier said. “And we’ve got an opportunity to go something else (this Saturday), and that’s what we’re gonna turn our attention to.”
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As much as they’re making it seem like they are, however, getting bowl-eligible perhaps is not something the Cajuns should take for granted.
Just ask any team that won’t get there this year, and the coaches fired as a result.
College football’s coaching carousel, after all, already is in full spin.
Before the start of the season, sure, some may have assumed bowl-eligibility was the cards for UL — even with games at nationally ranked Mississippi State and Alabama that arguably cut UL’s realistic chances for getting to at least six victories from 12 to 10.
Others, however, weren’t so certain the Cajuns would get to a half-dozen.
“We knew people outside of the (UL football) complex really didn’t believe in us like that,” receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley said after pulling in three touchdown passes Saturday. “But we had faith, because we knew we had weapons, and coach (Napier) came in and put us all together.
“We had a few bumps early in the road, but we stayed together. We didn’t separate, and we just moved forward.”
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UL did lose at Mississippi State and Alabama.
It was upset by Coastal Carolina in its Sun Belt opener too, emerging from September 1-3. But the Cajuns made up for that with an upset win over Sun Belt West preseason favorite Arkansas State.
It also lost, as the underdog, and at Appalachian State and Troy, the two teams that will play Saturday to determine the Sun Belt East champ. The winner of that one will host the Dec. 1 SBC title game, which in turn will send its winner to the New Orleans Bowl.
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But after beating South Alabama, UL now has won five of its last seven, and that’s good enough — even with three conference losses to date — to keep alive Cajun hopes beyond mere bowl-eligibility.
“Through the good and the bad,” Napier said, “we’ve gotten where we want to be.
“We’re playing (Saturday) to get into the championship game, and that’s the objective: be a contender, right? Be a contender, and get in the mix.
“And through improvement, and through building a better team,” he added, “we’ve done that.”
Which is yet another accomplishment not to be taken for granted for a program much in need of mending when Napier arrived.
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