Billy Napier delivered a strong debut season at Louisiana, winning the Sun Belt West Division crown and landing a strong recruiting class. Now he’s working to build on the success while offsetting the loss of a few key players, including his starting quarterback.
Orlando Sentinel college insider Matt Murschel ranked all 130 FBS teams in the country entering the 2019 season. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 130 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No. 104: Louisiana
Coach: Billy Napier (7-7, entering second season, 7-7 overall)
2018 record: 7-7 overall, 5-3 in Sun Belt; tied for first in West Division
Look back: Louisiana thrived in the Sun Belt early in former coach Mark Hudspeth’s tenure, making four consecutive New Orleans Bowl appearances. Then the Ragin’ Cajuns posted losing seasons two of the next three years and NCAA investigation found that an assistant coach helped orchestrate academic fraud and payments to players.
The school ultimately cut ties with Hudspeth after the 2017 season and hired Napier, a former Alabama and Clemson assistant. It seemed the Ragin’ Cajuns were on track for another losing season, but Napier quickly steered the Ragin’ Cajuns to the top of the Sun Belt West Division.
The offense was steady, but the defense struggled. The Ragin’ Cajuns ranked No. 105 nationally in scoring defense, giving up 34.2 points per game. Appalachian State exploited the defensive issues during a win over the Ragin’ Cajuns in the Sun Belt Championship Game and Tulane put up big offensive numbers during a Cure Bowl win over Louisiana.
Offensive starters returning: 8
Offensive starters lost: 3
Defensive starters returning: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: QB Andre Nunez, WR Ryheem Malone, LB Justin Middleton, DE Garrald McDowell, K Kyle Pfau
Top returnees: RB Elijah Mitchell, RB Trey Ragas, RB Raymond Calais, WR Jarrod Jackson, WR Ja'Marcus Bradley, OL Kevin Dotson, OL Robert Hunt, LB Ferrod Gardner, DL Zi'Yon Hill, DL Bennie Higgins, CB Michael Jacquet III
Strengths: Louisiana should once again feature a potent rushing attack, with three quality rushing threats in Elijah Mitchell, Trey Regas and Raymond Calais. They will get a lift from a seasoned offensive line led by Kevin Dotson and Robert Hunt.
On the defensive side of the ball, Michael Jacquet III is among the top returning players on a secondary that played a role in Louisiana’s push to reach seven wins last season. Ferrod Gardner anchors a linebacker group that has the potential to be disruptive.
Weaknesses: The Ragin’ Cajuns will be working with a new starting quarterback following the departure of quarterback Andre Nunez. Levi Lewis and junior-college transfer Jai’ave Magalei are among the top candidates to take over the job.
The team also lost some strong leaders in defensive end Garrald McDowell and linebacker Justin Middleton. Louisiana also saw some members of the improved secondary depart.
The Ragin’ Cajuns had the worst defense in the country in 2017, so the tepid results in 2018 actually were modest improvement. The key will be to continue building on that progress as some experienced players leave the roster.
Outlook: Louisiana is headed in a positive direction, but the team has to find a starting quarterback and limit injuries while playing a relatively tough slate. It might lead to a modest step back in wins.
Aug. 31 Mississippi State in New Orleans
Sept. 7 Liberty
Sept. 14 Texas Southern
Sept. 21 at Ohio
Sept. 28 at Georgia Southern
Oct. 9 Appalachian State
Oct. 17 at Arkansas State
Nov. 2 Texas State
Nov. 7 at Coastal Carolina
Nov. 16 at South Alabama
Nov. 23 Troy
Nov. 30 ULM
Previously on the countdown: