Why it was hard to dodge the hype over the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns at Sun Belt Media Day
NEW ORLEANS – With 20 of 22 starters returning from a 10-1 team, UL football has a chance to do something special in 2021.
That was the sentiment of Sun Belt Conference coaches and players gathered Thursday here for the league’s Media Day.
“Especially with everybody coming back,” Ragin’ Cajuns offensive tackle Max Mitchell said, “we are motivated to run the table this year.”
Expectations really are high for coach Billy Napier’s Cajuns, and not just internally.
“Billy has done an outstanding job there, I think,” said Troy coach Chip Lindsay, whose Trojans face UL on Nov. 13. “He’s really created a program there that those guys expect to be in the hunt … every year.”
UL finished last season ranked No. 16 in the USA TODAY coaches poll and No. 15 in the final Associated Press Top 25.
That’s also part of why there’s so much buzz about what the Cajuns, whose biggest losses are running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, can do in 2021.
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It starts at Texas
To ease the pressure, Napier said he’ll open preseason camp Aug. 5 with a one-phase-at-a-time mentality.
Yet Mitchell readily acknowledges it’s “kind of hard” to dodge all the hype.
“It’s everywhere,” he said. “Your friends, family, talk about it. They’re all excited about it.
“But me personally? Going into camp, you have to keep your head down really. There’s not much else to it besides being able to go in there, do your work every day.
“As a player, it’s always in the back of your head – but you just have to go and work, really,” Mitchell added. “Then, once you get there … you’re ready for the moment.”
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All the moments that follow for UL this year, however, will mean a little less if the Cajuns cannot knock off Texas in their Sept. 4 season opener at Austin.
After they upset Iowa State to open 2020, beating the Longhorns – even on the road – seems as realistic to at least some Cajuns as winning all the rest.
“Texas game is a big game. I feel it would give us a lot more confidence. It would make people respect us more,” said defensive lineman Zi’Yon tackle, who, like Mitchell, also represented UL on Thursday. “People respect us now, you know? They know who we are. The Texas game would actually put us out there.”
Coastal Carolina another incentive
In 2020, UL’s lone blemish was a 30-27 loss to Coastal Carolina on Oct. 14 at Cajun Field.
After losing at Appalachian State in the 2018 and 2019 Sun Belt Conference championship games, the Cajuns had hoped for a rematch with Coastal in last year’s title game.
A COVID-19 outbreak within the Chanticleers’ program, however, resulted in cancellation of what was to have been UL’s third straight shot at winning the league championship.
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“That one game we lost to Coastal at home was devastating,” Mitchell said, “but after three years of going through getting that close to the championship … it’s a massive incentive.”
So too is proving last season’s road win over a Power 5 opponent was no fluke.
A win at Texas, which has a new head coach in former USC and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, would take care of that.
“Iowa State definitely led off to a very special season that we were gonna try to have,” Mitchell said.
“I think we can definitely go in there (to Texas) and get it done, and if we get it done I think that will lead off to another special season. I think this year we’ll have the capability to close it out. … So, that is important. I think it really is.”