Billy Napier has elevated Louisiana into one of the top Group of 5 teams over the last two years, but there's one hurdle left to clear. The Ragin' Cajuns are 0-4 against Appalachian State over the last two seasons, and the Mountaineers stand in the way of a Sun Belt title once again in 2020. But with Appalachian State on its third coach in three years, the door is open for Louisiana to win the Sun Belt. Quarterback Levi Lewis and running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas lead a standout offense, while the defense hopes to build off last year's progress and rank as one of the best in the conference once again. The Oct. 7 road trip to Appalachian State is likely to be the first of two meetings between these two teams, but a win in Boone could mean the Sun Belt title matchup takes place in Louisiana in early December.
Previewing Louisiana's Offense for 2020
The Ragin’ Cajuns achieved liftoff in 2019, finishing in the top 10 nationally in total offense, scoring offense and yards per play while shattering school records for all of the above. In 2020, Sun Belt defenses should buckle up for more of the same. At quarterback, hyper-efficient senior Levi Lewis returns after posting a ratio of 26 TDs to just four INTs in his first season as the full-time starter. At running back, seniors Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell have more career rushing yards (5,203) and touchdowns (61) to their credit than any other active duo in the country. All five O-line starters have at least one full season of starting under their belts, including 2019 injury casualties Ken Marks and Cole Prudhomme, both of whom were granted a sixth year of eligibility. Guard O’Cyrus Torrence, a 6'5", 342-pound Freshman All-American, has the makings of a future pro. Help is also on the way in the form of Arizona State transfer Zach Robertson, who played in 31 games from 2016-18 in Tempe.
If there’s a question mark, it’s at wideout, where two-time All-Sun Belt pick Ja’Marcus Bradley will be sorely missed. Still, between sophomore Peter LeBlanc and seniors Jamal Bell, Jalen Williams and Calif Gossett — who collectively hauled in 98 receptions with six TDs in 2019 — there is no shortage of familiar options.
Previewing Louisiana's Defense for 2020
The defense made big strides last year, holding opponents to an SBC-best 19.7 points per game — down from the 34.2 ppg it allowed in head coach Billy Napier’s first season. The architect, coordinator Ron Roberts, took the same position at Baylor. His replacement, Patrick Toney, was promoted from safeties coach with a mandate to keep things going in the right direction.
The front seven is a deep, veteran group anchored by junior Zi’Yon Hill, a second-team All-SBC pick on the interior line, and the interchangeable edge-rushing corps of Joe Dillon, Kris Moncrief, Andre Jones and Chauncey Manac, who together accounted for nearly half of the team’s 66 tackles for a loss. FIU transfer Tayland Humphrey, the only former four-star recruit on the roster, will supply another massive body inside after sitting out 2019.
On the back end, all five projected starters played significantly last year for a secondary that ranked fifth nationally in passing TDs allowed (11) and 24th in pass efficiency D. If junior Asjlin Washington can fill the void left by Michael Jacquet III at corner, those marks should be well within reach again.
Previewing Louisiana's Specialists for 2020
Kenneth Almendares and Grant Paulette were slated to compete for the placekicking job before spring practices were canceled; a third option, Indiana transfer Nate Snyder, is expected to join the mix by fall. Australian Rhys Byrns returns to punt after averaging 42.0 yards per attempt the past two years. UL will be looking for more pop in the return game.
Last season was the best in Louisiana history: The Cajuns set a school record for wins, outscored opponents by 18 points per game and came within a TD in the Sun Belt Championship of claiming their first-ever outright conference title. The team’s progress is so obvious that Napier, a former assistant to both Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, reportedly told at least one Power 5 school “thanks but no thanks” last winter. The day that he says yes is coming. In the meantime, he may not get a better opportunity to finish the job in Lafayette than he has right now.
National Ranking: 41
(Top photo by AJ Henderson/Sun Belt Conference)