Louisiana Preview: Ragin’ Cajuns are revamping, but not yet winning

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Dec 18, 2017; Lafayette, LA, USA; Billy Napier (right) is introduced as the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajun head football coach. Mandatory Credit: Scott Clause/Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY NETWORK

Dec 18, 2017; Lafayette, LA, USA; (right) is introduced as the -Lafayette Ragin Cajun head football coach. Mandatory Credit: Scott Clause/Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY NETWORK

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 27, 2018

One of the more curious cases in college coaching recently was the decline and ultimate fall of Mark Hudspeth, the former head coach at Louisiana (nee , and also the ), who was fired after the 2018 season.

Hudspeth, for a time, found himself at or near the top of coaching hot lists, tied at one point or another, and to one degree or another, to openings at Auburn and Arkansas, as well as being thought of as the eventual replacement for Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. It didn’t work out in the end. After a disappointing 2017, which featured a 5-7 final record, a boring offense and a defense that couldn’t stop a 5-year-old from getting into a bag of Halloween candy, Hudspeth was shown the door.

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Enter former assistant Billy Napier, who if nothing else has committed to making the Ragin’ Cajuns tougher. So far in 2018, however, it’s just been more of the same.

We’re going to analyze this game as we always do, but we’re not going to spend a terribly large amount of time on doing so, because it’s almost superfluous. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 1-2, with a win over Grambling in its opener, and then two disappointing losses. Mississippi State poleaxed Louisiana in Week 2, and then Coastal Carolina eeked out a 2-point win last week. A bowl bid looks unlikely. Louisiana will not win this game.

In the long run, however, the program is probably in better hands. In addition to finally shaving off the directional adjective and then the city name from its official trademark, Louisiana is trying to become its state’s No. 2 team behind LSU. Granted, when your competition for that title is Tulane, it’s sort of like being the first guy not to grab a lifeboat during the Titanic’s final minutes. Still, this is a proud program with supportive fans, and they’d like to be known for winning something other than the tailgate – it is in the heart of crawfish country, after all.

OFFENSE

Hudspeth ran a version of the hurry-up spread that, when he started running it, was capable of causing problems for even the biggest opponents. After it became widespread across the college football landscape, the Ragin’ Cajuns lost their schematic edge. Napier is an offensive guy by trade and Louisiana will continue to base around spread elements, but the running game has tuned up this season. Louisiana ranks 39th in rushing offense and 65th in total offense, both modest gains over last year, but the passing attack (84th) is atrocious. Alabama counters with college football’s version of the Greatest Show on Turf, triggered by .

QUARTERBACKS
Napier inherited a mess here, and it got worse as the year went along. Jordan Davis, who won the job in the spring, quit the team afterward. That left Levi Lewis holding the job, but he has durability issues. Enter Andre Nunez, the third-team QB from a year ago, who has put up an excellent completion percentage (72.3%), with only 1 interception thrown, but he’s averaging just 180.3 yards passing per game as the Ragin’ Cajuns focus on the ground game. Nunez is a decent scrambler, but he’s not a run-first quarterback by any stretch. Lewis holds the backup job. Alabama counters with, of course, Tua Tagovailoa, coming off his most productive game in crimson. He’s already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and his passer rating of 230.5 is absurd. Jalen Hurts and Mac Jones both will likely see time in this game as it goes along. Napier is getting about the best of Nunez he can get, but this is no contest. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
The strength of the offense for sure, Louisiana has some real talent at this spot and better depth than several of Alabama’s other opponents. , a 5’11”, 230-pound sophomore, is averaging 8.4 yards per carry and can bang it inside. But as remarkable as that average YPC number is, it pales in comparison to the ridiculous average of 14.3 yards per carry that one of his backups, scatback , has put up. Calais is only seeing the ball about 5 times per game, typically in sweep action, and you have to wonder how productive he’s going to be against Alabama. But Ragas and Calais together have 48 carries on the season, a legitimate sample size. Elijah Mitchell, Ashton Johnson and Jordan Wright all have seen action, and all come in roughly the same 5’11”, 220-pound package as does the starter. There will be no fear of the Ragin’ Cajuns wearing down from overuse, at least. Alabama will start , with and the primary backups. Brian Robinson Jr. should see time this game, and probably Ronnie Clark as well. Alabama can match talent for talent here with no problem, but right now it’s probably fair to say Louisiana has been more productive, especially relative to the talent level. We aren’t picking the Ragin’ Cajuns, but if Alabama wants to continue to enjoy more head-to-head wins in this category, it needs to pick up the pace. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
There’s a lot of experience here for Louisiana but not a lot of productivity. Junior Ja’Marcus Bradley, who has found the end zone 3 times so far on the season, is the only receiver really worth mentioning. Keenan Barnes, Johnny Lumpkin and Ryheem Malone provide depth, but not much else. Michael Jacquet was a starter here last year before moving to cornerback in fall camp; the plan was to use him as a two-way threat, but that plan hasn’t materialized. The Ragin’ Cajuns have a lot of bodies at tight end but production hasn’t been great; Matt Barnes will start. Alabama counters with probably the best unit in the SEC, and one of the best in the country. Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III will start at receiver, with Derek Kief, Jaylen Waddle and Tyrell Shavers the primary backups. The tight end group, led by Irv Smith Jr. and Hale Hentges, has developed into nightmare juice for opponents. Not close. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
Napier has loaded the line to the right side with returning starters, and coupled with tight end Matt Barnes, a good blocker, it’s no accident the running game has succeeded. Cole Prudhomme is a quality center, and guard Kevin Dotson and tackle Robert Hunt can hold their own. It’s the left side that needs work, with converted tackle Ken Marks working at guard and Rico Robinson the starting left tackle. Louisiana has had trouble keeping its quarterbacks clean, and with more emphasis on the running game, tackles for losses have hovered around too high a ranking (98th) as well. Alabama counters with a group that suddenly has become expert pass blockers, but is struggling in run blocking. Ross Pierschbacher will start at center flanked by tackles Jedrick Wills and Jonah Williams. Lester Cotton will start at left guard. Alex Leatherwood, for now, is the right guard, but Matt Womack returned from a foot injury this week and Deonte Brown was pushing even before this. Expect to see several combinations play this week. Advantage: Alabama

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