The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 66: Louisiana-Lafayette
Coach: Mark Hudspeth (9-4, entering second season)
2011 record: 9-4 (6-2 in Sun Belt, third place in Sun Belt)
Look back: New head coach Mark Hudspeth took Louisiana Lafayette by storm in 2011, helping the Ragin’ Cajuns win their first bowl in school history in dramatic fashion and finish with better than a .500 record for the first time since 1993. Hudspeth, who previously spent two seasons as Mississippi State’s receivers coach and posted a 66-21 record in seven seasons at FCS North Alabama, replaced Rickey Bustle, who went 41-65 in eight seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns opened the Hudspeth era with a 61-34 loss at Oklahoma State. However, the team bounced back in a big way and racked up six consecutive wins, doubling the previous season’s total victories and clinching bowl eligibility. The team rolled to a 20-12 win at Kent State, a 38-21 win against Nicholls State, a 36-31 win at FIU, a 37-34 win against FAU, a 31-17 win against Troy and a 30-10 win against North Texas.
Louisiana-Lafayette finally stumbled, falling 42-23 at Western Kentucky before rebounding for two more wins — 45-20 at Middle Tennessee State and 36-35 against Louisiana-Monroe. The Ragin’ Cajuns dropped their final two regular season games, losing 30-21 at Arkansas State and 45-37 at Arizona.
The team faced off against San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl, delivering one of the most dramatic games of the 2011 postseason. San Diego State trailed Louisiana-Lafayette 29-23 late in the fourth quarter. Aztecs quarterback Ryan Lindley led a 10-play, 69-yard scoring drive capped by a touchdown pass to Colin Lockett that gave San Diego State a 30-29 lead with 35 seconds remaining. Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Blaine Gautier quickly led his team into San Diego State territory and Brett Baer hit a 50-yard field goal as time expired to give the Ragin’ Cajuns a 32-30 win over San Diego State and the first bowl victory in school history. Gautier set a New Orleans Bowl record with 470 passing yards.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 3/8
Defensive starters lost/returning: 9/2
Key losses: TE Ladarius Green, DL Bernard Smith, LB Lance Kelley, DB Dwight “Bill” Bentley, LB Devon Lewis-Buchanan, DB Melvin White.
Top returnees: QB Blaine Gautier, WR Javone Lawson, OL Leonardo Bates, K/P Brett Baer, RB Alonzo Harris.
Strengths: Gautier is one of eight returning starters set to help lead Louisiana-Lafayette’s offense. He has thrived in Hudspeth’s system. Gautier set a school single season passing record in 2011 by racking up 2,958 yards, surpassing the previous mark of 2,901 set by Jake Delhomme in 1996. Gautier ranked No. 14 nationally in pass efficiency (153.60 rating per game) and No. 30 in total offense (264.92 yards per game).
Gautier’s top target, Javone Lawson, will be back. He ranked No. 35 nationally with 84 receiving yards per game.
Baer, who has proven to be a strong kicker and punter under pressure, also returns for the 2012 season. His long-range accuracy could help Louisiana-Lafayette continue to win close games.
Weaknesses: Louisiana-Lafayette loses all but two defensive starters. The defense struggled last season, ranking No. 84 out of 120 teams nationally in scoring defense (29.85 points allowed per game) and No. 75 in total defense (allowing 399.92 yards per game). While a fresh crop of talented recruits could eventually help turn around the defense, experience remains an invaluable skill in college football and the defense may end up taking another step back before it can move forward.
Outlook: Louisiana-Lafayette a strong enough offense to post another winning season, but it’s unclear whether the new crop of defensive starters will thrive or hold the team back.
Sept. 1 Lamar
Sept. 8 At Troy
Sept. 15 At Oklahoma State
Sept. 29 FIU
Oct. 6 Tulane
Oct. 16 At North Texas
Oct. 23 Arkansas State
Nov. 3 At Louisiana-Monroe
Nov. 10 At Florida
Nov. 17 Western Kentucky
Nov. 24 South Alabama
Dec. 1 At FAU
Rest of the countdown: