Note: There are a lot of important decisions that will be made in the next two or three weeks that could ultimately decide if we have a season and how that season plays out. We will continue our preview series until the SEC officially alters/cancels the season and the preview series will continue until updated and completed.
Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Louisiana-Lafayette. Louisiana. ULL. UL. There has been a lot of different ways to say the name of the school but, thankfully, they’ve kept one of the best mascots in college sports: The Ragin’ Cajuns.
The Cajuns rose to relevance during the Mark Hudspeth years of 2011-2014, where they went 9-4 each year and always (fittingly) wound up the New Orleans Bowl. Coach Hud couldn’t keep the momentum going after that, but he showed that the school in Lafayette could, in fact, field a competent, fun team that could compete in the Sun Belt and scare the hell out of P5 programs.
And then they hired Billy Napier.
All he’s done is raise their recruiting profile and play in the Sun Belt Championship for the past two years. Several people, including myself, longed for Coach Napier to take over the Missouri program at the end of 2019; I’m certainly pleased so far with the coach that we got, but Napier is a hot commodity that has his team rising up the G5 ranks. They are a dangerous team that should once again threaten App State for Sun Belt superiority while actively hunting for another P5 pelt for their wall.
Here’s what the Ragin’ Cajuns did in 2019:
The Cajuns scored at least 27 points in every game except one and finished with double-digit wins for the first time ever at the FBS level.
And, yes, you can say “well they ain’t played nobody in the Sun Belt” and while, yes, they played mostly Sun Belt teams, it’s how they performed that really sets them apart.
As a team they Cajuns performed at the 80th percentile seven times, eclipsing the 90th percentile or better four times, The offense mirrored those numbers, exceeding the 80th percentile seven times and the 90th four times. The defense had three performances in the 90th percentile but, simply put, the Cajuns were much better than their peers and could even push a P5 program to the limit. And with 66% of their 2019 production returning for 2020, all signs point to another excellent year in Lafayette.
Billy Napier - 3rd Year - 18-10 (12-4)
There is a chance that Napier is the next Urban Meyer. You know...the guy who built Bowling Green into an offensive dynamo, led Utah to an undefeated season, and then won three National Championships at Florida and Ohio State? Meyer was a young position coach who was an elite recruiter and developer of talent, installing schemes to maximize speed on both sides of the ball. Meyer’s staying ability isn’t renowned, but as a program builder, he is truly elite.
Napier has followed a similar track. He was trusted enough to become Dabo Swinney’s first Clemson OC at the tender age of 28, and when Swinney fired his coordinators after the West Virginia debacle, Napier ended up at Alabama as an analyst (a now famous career-launching pad) before getting bumped to a Crimson Tide position coach after a stint with Jim McElwain at Colorado State. From Alabama, he was hired by elite-talent-identifier Todd Graham at Arizona State before finally landing the ULL job.
He has Saban and Swinney DNA in his coaching veins, has hauled in the two highest-ranking recruiting classes in Sun Belt history, and led the 2019 Cajuns to the highest SP+ ranking in Sun Belt history this side of Appalachian State. The fact that he’s still at ULL is unbelievable in my mind, but I can’t imagine he stays in Lafayette for much longer.
Rob Sale - Offensive Coordinator: Coach Sale got his start as an analyst on Nick Saban’s first Alabama teams. He then took a sabbatical at McNeese State before coaching the offensive line with Mark Richt’s last Georgia team, then the same gig at Louisiana-Monroe, before meeting up with Coach Napier at Arizona State. When Napier took the ULL job he tabbed Sale as his OC. His first offense ranked 53rd before ranking 15th in SP+ last year, leaning on elite rushing attacks to power his offenses.
Patrick Toney - Defensive Coordinator: Coach Toney was an FCS staple before joinging the FBS ranks at UT-San Antonio, coaching safeties on one of the best G5 defenses of 2017. He then joined Napier’s crew, again coaching safeties, before being promoted to DC during this past offseason. He’s young and a great safeties coach but is untested in coordinating defenses. It’ll be interesting to see how his group responds to his schemes this year.
Robby Discher - Special Teams Coordinator
Jabbar Juluke - Running Backs
Tim Leger - Wide Receivers
Michael Desormeaux - Tight Ends
D.J. Looney - Offensive Line
Rory Segrest - Defensive Line
Austin Armstrong - Inside Linebackers
LaMar Morgan - Cornerbacks
ULL’s offense last year was elite. Not “elite for a G5”... just flat out elite. The passing game was merely 48th but the rushing attack ranked 6th in the nation in SP+. The Cajuns were 6th in rushing success rate, 4th in efficiency, 15th in explosiveness, 4th in opportunity rate (percentage of times a run goes five yards), and 3rd in stuff rate. And it didn’t matter the down and distance, either, since the Cajuns were a healthy 16th in standard downs and 20th in passing downs. The offense was efficiency based and was consistently able to get the yards needed on any down, finishing drives with an average of 5.16 points per scoring opportunity, 17th in the nation (Ohio State average 5.27 points - 10th - for reference). And with a returning quarterback, two of the top three running backs, and 4 of their top 7 receiving targets, they should be just as deadly this year.
Quarterback - Levi Lewis - Senior
I wish Levi Lewis played for Missouri.
The rising senior has only one full season of starts under his belt but did a helluva job with that one season: 64% completion rate, a tremendous 3.8% sack rate, and a healthy 7.4 yards per attempt. Over 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns passing with an extra 300+ yards rushing on the ground makes for a competent, patient, and effective trigger man for one of the best offenses in the country. He probably won’t do much better than what he did in 2019, but even a repeat of last year will be an impressive season.
Running Back - Elijah Mitchell - Senior
With zero hyperbole, I can safely say that Elijah Mitchell is the best running back from 2019 that Missouri will face in 2020. Yes, Kylin Hill had more yardage, but a.) he did it on 52 more carries, and b.) had six fewer touchdowns paired with worse success rates and opportunity rates. Mitchell was part of a three-headed rushing attack that brings back Trey Ragas as a battery mate. Those two combined for 1,967 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground with both getting five-yards on over 53% of their carries and converting downs at over a 56% clip. Do you realize how insanely good that is? The Tiger front seven is going to have their hands full with these two.
Wide Receiver - Jamal Bell - Senior
ULL’s passing game wasn’t nearly as impressive as the running game, and with the graduation of Ja’Marcus Bradley, the Cajuns are losing 906 yards and 10 of the 27 touchdown receptions from 2019. There’s a lot of young receivers who will get a chance to step up but they’ll be looking to Bell to carry the corps for the first couple of games. Bell had an insane 79% catch rate with a decent 10.3 yards per target. Peter Leblanc and Calif Gossett also had a 75% catch rate, granted on fewer targets. The passing game could be very efficient with these three, possibly explosive if some younger guys step up.
After all the lauding and platitudes placed upon the Cajun offense, the defense is going to come across as a letdown, ranking a “merely good” 66th in SP+. And, to be fair, that is an accurate assessment: they couldn’t stop the run to save their lives (93rd in rushing defense) and continuously let opponents convert on early downs (80th in standard downs defense). They were very strong against the pass — 43rd in passing defense, 47th in success rate, 29th in sack rate, 23rd in passing downs — but hardly got to use those talents since teams generally stuck to the ground for 8-12 plays per drive. They did rank 15th against explosive plays, and if teams couldn’t maintain efficient drives, they were toast, but more often than not opponent offenses transformed into the ULL offense every game. With 67% of their production returning - 54th in the nation - including 16 guys who logged double-digit tackles, there is some good continuity on this side of the ball to hint at possible improvement. They really need to get some better run-stuffers on the line, however.
Defensive Line - Zi’Yon Hill - Redshirt Junior
The Cajuns deployed maybe the tightest line rotation of any 2020 opponent you’ll see, fielding only three guys on the regular, with a fourth lineman (Dalvin Hutchinson) occasionally rotating in and logging 6 tackles on the year. Hill is the leading tackler on the line with 37 tackles, 7 run stuffs, and 2.5 sacks. Departed defensive end Bennie Higgins added only 3.5 sacks and 26 tackles so Hutchinson and junior Ja’Quane Nelson will have first dibs at filling in. Five of the twelve linemen on the roster are freshmen so there will be a lot of opportunities for young guys to step up. The Cajuns’ defense is used to not getting a lot of production from its line, but it’ll need a little more than that to take the next jump.
Linebacker - Lorenzo McCaskill - Redshirt Junior
Of the nine guys guys in the linebacker rotation seven return, however they lose two of their top three tacklers with Jordan Boudreaux and Ferrod Gardner graduating. They were the starting inside linebackers - the position most likely to make a tackle in a 3-4 alignment - so they’ll need to replace their most consistent contributors, which is not easy. However, McCaskill is an equally active playmaker while Joe Dillon has the most returning havoc plays with 11.5. There’s five freshmen on the roster of 21 linebackers...there’s a solid chance the next impact player is there, but it’s a lot of 3+ year talent that hasn’t been able to see the field quite yet.
Defensive Back - Percy Butler - Junior
The Cajun secondary was active and havoc-inducing, with two of the top three havoc producers on the team lurking in the safety corps. Butler was the team’s third-best tackler from his Rover position while Eric Garror contributed 8 pass defenses, solidifying himself as the team’s #1 corner for 2020. The Cajuns shut down opposing passing games and erased drives if they got to 2nd- or 3rd-and-long and they return 8 of their 11-man rotation, buoyed by some highly ranked freshmen coming on campus this season. There’s a solid chance the secondary is a strength once again.
So what does it all mean?
There’s no reason that we should judge Eli Drinkwitz on what he and the team does this year. First-year coaches should get a pass, especially when rebuilding a roster, and especially during a pandemic and all the... well, jeez you know by now.
But, wow, do I really hope that this game gets canceled. (Editor’s note: yikes, Nate)
The Tigers will gain nothing from this game, win or lose. ULL will get paid to come to Columbia and push the Tigers to the limit, if not win outright. The Cajuns had one shot at a P5 program last year - Mississippi State - and only lost by ten in the first game of the year while they were still breaking in new pieces. ULL will be showing up to play Missouri in the second-to-last week of the year (probably) with a veteran roster filled with a lot of talented youngsters, utilizing a scheme that they are familiar with. Missouri will be a trendy pick to lose this game.
However, the Tigers will have had a full season to figure things out as well. Assuming that the Tigers aren’t missing starters to injury or COVID, they should have more experienced talent than the Cajuns should. So it’s not a complete write-off that the Tigers will lose.
Regardless, if the Cajuns are anything like they were at the end of last year, this will be a game that will be zero fun to watch that will teach us nothing but how resilient Drinkwitz’s Baby Tigers will be under pressure from an G5 juggernaut. Here’s to winning the day!