Why Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns feel cracking College Football Playoff is nearly impossible

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

After spending last season vying to qualify for a New Year's Six bowl game as college football’s highest-ranked Group of Five team, the Ragin' Cajuns realized the goal was achievable — even though they didn't qualify. 

But earning a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff seems darn-near impossible for a school like UL.

“I think the reality is it’s always going to be challenging for a Group of Five program to break their way into the actual playoff, right?" Cajuns athletic director Bryan Maggard said. “And that’s for a number of reasons.”

Sun Belt Conference commissioner Keith Gill understands.

“It’s hard, you know? And I think there’s no way of getting around it,” he said. “It certainly is a challenge.

“I do think it’s possible, but I think there are some significant barriers that hopefully, over time, come down so that that’s an easier kind of possibility. Because I certainly think there have been deserving teams over the course of, certainly, the last four or five years.”

A Group of Five team has not qualified for the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014. 

Maggard cited “strength of schedule” as one reason it’s so tough. Another: “I think brand recognition is a big part of that,” he said. “So I think it’s always going to be challenging.”

Nothing suggests otherwise.

“I would never say never, because it’s hard to close the book on that,” Gill said. “But I’ve not seen anything that makes it indicate it is possible.

“Hopefully as we work … on evaluating the College Football Playoff we can remedy some of those barriers.”

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CFP debate rages

Until then, the debate continues as to whether the system is broken.

“There’s more parity in college football now than there has been for a while,” coach Billy Napier said near the end of UL's 2020 season, which began with an upset win at nationally ranked Iowa State.

On that same Saturday, Coastal Carolina beat Kansas and Arkansas State beat Kansas State, making the Sun Belt 3-0 against Big 12 teams.

Coastal Carolina finished No. 14 and UL No. 16 in the final Amway Coaches Poll. Cincinnati, which was ranked No. 8, was the Group of Five qualifier in the New Year's Six.

Billy Napier and the Ragin' Cajuns celebrated a First Responder's Bowl win over Texas-San Antonio in December. But will they ever enjoy a New Year's Six bowl and College Football Playoff appearance?

“I do think it’s kind of opened my eyes a little bit … relative to these rankings each week,” Napier said.

“You’re looking at the body of work of some of these teams, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘OK, hey, if those two teams played this week who would win?’ ”

The answer isn’t automatically "Power 5." Napier cites another Sun Belt team, Appalachian State in 2019, as another example. UCF, Boise State, Houston, Memphis also are among the annual Group of Five disrupters.

Napier, whose Cajuns open their 2021 season at Texas, said he sees evidence “some of these Group of Five teams can compete with the middle and bottom parts of a lot of Power 5 leagues.”

“So, as long as the Group of Fives continue to win some of these matchups like they have in the past,” he said, “I don’t think that dialogue’s going away.”

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Current Cajuns weigh in

But is it worth wasting one’s breath?

“If we went undefeated – you know, we beat everybody; beat Texas and all those guys — I honestly don’t know if we would even get the opportunity to make a New Year’s Six bowl,” Cajuns center Shane Vallot said. “But that’s something we can’t worry about.

“So we’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing, and try to win ballgames, and win the conference here, and hopefully … if they see something different, they think we can get put in a New Year’s Six bowl or get put in the playoffs or anything, you know, that would be awesome.

“But,” Vallot added, “I’m not sure, honestly.”

Cajuns safety Percy Butler knows the feeling. He also thinks he knows the reason.

“If we played more Power 5 teams and ran through our schedule,” Butler said, “I feel like we’d be there with no doubt.

“But … we really don’t play a hard enough schedule to be up there. That’s what the people say: Our schedule is not hard enough for us to get ranked that high to make it to the playoffs.”

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Head start could hep Sun Belt teams

Gill believes beginning the season ranked is a head start for any Group of Five team with New Year’s Six aspirations.

“Hopefully we’ll have two, maybe three teams, preseason ranked between Louisiana, Coastal and App, and we can get off to a good start,” Gill  said. “One of the things I think kept us down a little bit (last season) is we weren’t in there early.”

But there are many more hurdles to overcome..  

“For us at Louisiana … our next step is to compete for, or get into, that New Year’s Six bowl,” he said.

“And we got very close (last) year.”

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Ragin' Cajuns coach Billy Napier, whose team went 10-1 last season, works during a spring practice earlier this month at Cajun Field.

UL (10-1) won last season’s First Responder Bowl and all that separated it from finishing unbeaten was a 30-27 loss to Coastal Carolina.

For Maggard's part, he's not a proponent of creating a system that crowns a Group of Five national champion. “I don't know ... (that) is going to do a lot for you. I really don't,” he said. 

But he does hope the current system evolves and Group of 5 teams continue to show they can contend with the biggest conferences in the sport.

“Do I have thoughts about the opportunity to maybe broaden the pool from four to eight maybe? Maybe,” Maggard said. “But I think people have to really sit down, look at all the impacts that might have on other things and then make decisions.

“At the end of the day,” he added, “it will be unbelievably challenging for a Group of Five program to break their way into that 1 through 4 slot.”