The Texas Longhorns are starting over with their fourth head coach since 2013, but a matchup against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns in the season opener is threatening to spoil Steve Sarkisian’s debut.
UL head coach Billy Napier’s team kicked off the 2020 season with a 31-14 win over Iowa State in Ames. It was a sign of things to come for the Ragin’ Cajuns, who finished the year with a 10-1 record. Twenty starters return, including veteran quarterback Levi Lewis.
That should pose a stiff test for a UT squad installing new systems on both sides of the ball. Here’s what to watch when the two teams take the field in Austin over Labor Day weekend.
Louisiana at Texas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Texas -9
When Louisiana Has the Ball
The Ragin’ Cajuns built their success in 2020 around a rushing attack that churned out 5.5 yards per carry, ranking 12th nationally. Leading rushers Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas have moved on, leaving sophomore Chris Smith to carry the load on the ground. Lewis will probably see his role grow, too, after the dual-threat quarterback averaged five carries per game (335 yds., 5 TDs) a year ago.
UL’s proven offensive line will have a battle on its hands against a talented Texas defensive front that features two big bodies on the interior in freshman tackle Alfred Collins and sophomore nose tackle Keondre Coburn. Have the Longhorns found a threat on the edge to replace Joseph Ossai, one of the best pass rushers in the country last year? If not, UL could provide extra time for Lewis to throw the ball.
That would leave UT to deal with a slew of proven commodities in the UL passing game. The unit includes a new target to watch in TCU transfer John Stephens Jr. Fortunately for the Horns, they have a deep secondary to contend with Lewis and Co.
When Texas Has the Ball
All eyes in Austin will be on second-year freshman Hudson Card, the winner of a preseason QB competition versus sophomore Casey Thompson. Card will find tough sledding against the Louisiana defense, which played superbly against the pass last season. UL brings back 10 starters from the ‘20 unit, including the entire secondary.
Make no mistake, though — Sarkisian’s offense will run through arguably the best running back in the country, sophomore Bijan Robinson. Robinson averaged more than eight yards per attempt last year. After seeing how Sarkisian used Najee Harris at Alabama in ‘20, Robinson could do some serious damage in the new UT scheme.
How much damage will depend on the ability of the Texas offensive line to open holes in the UL defense. The Ragin’ Cajuns were mediocre against the run a year, allowing 4.3 yards per rush. That put them squarely in the middle of the pack nationally and in the Sun Belt. If the Longhorns can’t handle UL up front, it won’t bode well for the coming season.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are an experienced bunch who know what it takes to beat a team in a heavier weight class. They enjoyed a plus-two turnover margin and scored three touchdowns on special teams in their upset of Iowa State last year. Don’t rule out the possibility of the Longhorns committing similar mistakes this time around in Sarkisian’s first game.
Without a resourceful TD or two, however, UL probably can’t put enough points on the board to win this game. Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has enough pieces to field a solid unit right off the bat and slow down UL’s rushing attack. If Card avoids enough of the mistakes you expect from a first-time starter at QB, the Horns should avoid an upset.
Prediction: Texas 28, Louisiana 21
Podcast: Week 0 Recap
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is the founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.