No. 24 Ragin' Cajuns move up in poll during strange 2020 season

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

UL’s non-conference opponents in 2020 were supposed be McNeese, Wyoming, New Mexico State and Missouri. In normal course, preparation would begin early in the offseason. Instead, because of cancellations prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ragin’ Cajuns have played Iowa State and UAB.

But they could not play their third and final non-conference game of the regular season, scheduled last Saturday at Cajun Field against Southland Conference-member Central Arkansas, due to COVID-19 issues within the UL program.

At least 33 players were recovering from the virus, had tested positive or were in quarantine during the week due to contact tracing, and on Saturday the team disclosed that coach Billy Napier has tested positive too. 

But, despite being idle Saturday, UL – which is scheduled to visit UL Monroe on Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN3) – moved up Sunday from No. 25 to No. 24 in the Amway Coaches Poll. The Cajuns were elevated one spot as previously No. 22 Liberty dropped out following its 15-14 loss to North Carolina State.

The Liberty loss also bumped UL from No. 24 to No. 23 in the new AP Top 25.

So be it during a strange 2020 season in which change trumps continuity.

“Like I say,” Cajuns quarterback Levi Lewis said of the madness back before the season even began, “Champions have got to adapt. No matter the circumstance, you’ve got to adapt.”

UL has.

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The Cajuns (7-1, 5-1 Sun Belt) upset then-No. 25 Iowa State, a program it had never before played, and later beat UAB – both on the road.

Preparation for those games typically would have started early in the offseason, but all the schedule alterations prevented that. Yet starting right tackle Max Mitchell couldn’t tell Cajun coaches had to scramble to prep for opponents they had no idea they’d be facing when in mid-March the coronavirus cut far too short their spring practice work.

“It was pretty seamless how we go from week to week,” Mitchell said early in the season.

In normal years, assistant coaches and staffers would begin assembling detailed scouting reports many months before the games were played. Hours upon hours of work usually goes into the effort. But for a long while during the spring and summer, the Cajuns had no clue which – if any – non-conference opponents they’d play.

On short notice they wound up having to study now-No. 16 Iowa State and a UAB team favored by preseason prognosticators including Street & Smith’s, Lindy’s and Athlon to win the Conference USA’s West Division.

Then, because of the COVID-19 issues this week, they had to shut down operations for four days until resuming Saturday, abruptly stopping prep for a Central Arkansas program ranked No. 11 in the FCS Top 25 after last season and 10 in one preseason national poll.

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Things have been anything but usual in 2020 like they were for offensive lineman Max Mitchell (74), quarterback Levi Lewis and the Ragin' Cajuns in 2019, when they opened against Mississippi State at the Superdome in New Orleans.

The Bears (5-4) lost 45-35 to UAB early this season and 50-27 to Sun Belt-member Arkansas State on Oct. 10 – both teams the Cajuns have beaten. They’ve knocked two FBS opponents in the past five seasons –  Western Kentucky of Conference USA in 2019, Arkansas State in 2016.

UL and UCA have never met. And now who knows when they ever will. But until things were shuttered Tuesday, the Cajuns were all geared up to battle the Bears.

“We’ve done a lot of research since the time they were put on the schedule,” Napier said Monday, before the cancellation and before he started showing symptoms of the virus. “All of our in-house people have been doing their job. We have a good understanding of who they are.”

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One secret to making it work with the two non-conferences they did get to play, Napier suggested, was to focus less on the opponent and more on who’s close to home. It’s similar to quick bowl prep, when sometimes the opponent is known for only a couple weeks or so.

“Often times football is more about looking in the mirror and really evaluating your own than who you play,” Napier said.

Another key is cramming what would have taken months and months – intricately breaking down an opponent – into days and weeks.

“You kind of go re-evaluate all the processes you have in place for the spring and the summer, and preseason,” Napier said, “and you try to take time out of the schedule and allocate for that.”

Ultimately, especially in the case of that early upset over Iowa State?

“We feel like … we certainly had done the same amount of work for a typical game,” Napier said. “We just crammed for the test instead of maybe ‘spreading out the work.’”

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So perhaps there’s something to be said for all-nighters.

But there’s something else to remember. And it can said for all the change with which UL and its opponents, in conference and out, have had to deal this season.

“It’s all relative. They have to do the same thing,” Napier said of the foes. “So whatever processes they’ve had for the offseason, they didn’t get a chance to do those things either.”

And nothing’s going to change that.

“We all were affected,” QB Lewis said. “We were planning to play our games, play the guys that were scheduled. … Everybody was thrown off.

“They didn’t know we were going to play them, so, at the end of the day, you’ve got adapt. That’s what it comes down to.”

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