LAFAYETTE, LA (WAFB) - In the past three years, the UL-Lafayette football team has gotten some national attention, so now, many wonder if the Ragin' Cajuns can take the next step to earning nationwide respect by beating quality teams outside their conference.
Those laughable, pitiful years of Ragin' Cajun football are quickly being left behind and forgotten, but the pain indeed outweighed the joy for quite some time. After all, this a program that once posted an 11-45 overall record from 1998-2002. That 1998 Cajuns team, for one, was beaten 72-20 by Tulane, 55-0 by Southern Miss and 77-14 by Louisiana Tech. You could fire a shotgun into the student section and not hit a soul. The youth were going wild somewhere else. Things were simply a joke.
Sixteen years later, head coach Mark Hudspeth has UL-Lafayette in a much different and exciting place. There could be as many as 40,000 fans packed into Cajun Field for the team's season opener against the Southern Jaguars on August 30. That may have been a three-game total during those dreadful late 90s.
"It's been a major transition," said senior running back Alonzo Harris. "There wasn't that many fans during my freshman year. They just began to come along."
That's largely because so did the winning. Each of Hudspeth's three teams have posted 9-4 records and each has finished the year with a win in The New Orleans Bowl. It has truly been a blast for the coaches, players and fans. Finally, the school has a vision, strong leadership and, of course, the money that was lacking during the lean times. The question now is, what's the next step? Has the program hit a plateau? Or, can UL-Lafayette become the next Boise State?
"The next step is to improve," said Hudspeth. "To improve every year, to take it one more step. If we continue to take it one day at a time, one practice at a time, one period at a time at practice, we can do that."
While winning the Sun Belt Conference is a huge goal and certainly won't be easy, many skeptics will be looking at two non-conference games in particular, to truly judge the Cajuns. UL-Lafayette travels to rising SEC foe Ole Miss on September 13, before another journey to yes, Boise State, the following week.
"The next step is winning a big game on the road," declared senior quarterback and former Capitol High School star Terrance Broadway. "We came close two years ago at Florida."
Boy, did they ever? Gators head coach Will Muschamp may have been fired already had UL-Lafayette been able to finish. The Cajuns held a 20-13 lead late in the fourth quarter, before the Gators roared back in "The Swamp." Florida blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown with just two seconds left in regulation to absolutely stagger the Cajuns 27-20.
"Florida was a heartbreaker. It's something that's stuck with me since we lost that game," Harris recalled.
"I can remember it like it was yesterday," Broadway added.
Early last year, the Cajuns were undergoing a major overhaul on defense and were likewise struggling to find the right personnel. Still, they opened the year with a disappointing 34-14 loss at Arkansas. The Razorbacks failed to win an SEC game and finished just 3-9 overall. UL-Lafayette then travelled to Big-12 power Kansas State and was pummeled 48-27. To become a major player, get nationwide respect and break into the Top 25, the Cajuns must perform better in those high profile spots. And, they've got a squad this season that's expected to do so.
"We've been anticipating the hype since January," Broadway said.
A glance at the Cajuns' offensive firepower alone should get fans salivating. Broadway is an incredible dual threat behind center. He can either truck defenders with his legs or beat them deep with his rocket arm. Harris and fellow running back Elijah McGuire combined for over 1,800 yards rushing last season and 22 touchdowns. And, they're both back. Jamal Robinson, the leading receiver in 2013, has also returned. He hauled in 54 catches for 862 yards and eight touchdowns. The offensive line is stellar, too. These guys should score some points.
"Well we hope so. I just want to take care of the football. If we take care of the football, the other things will take care of themselves," Hudspeth explained.
Will 2014 be a major, national breakthrough year for the Cajuns? They certainly have the momentum going in Lafayette.
"Our president, Dr. Savoie, has done a phenomenal job rallying our entire university and community. They're starting to see what winning can do for a community and a university. The national exposure they're getting is great. And now, with our other sports doing well, along with football, it's been a real exciting time. Hopefully, we can keep that train rolling," Hudspeth added.