UL Lafayette has gone 9-4 in each of Mark Hudspeth’s four seasons as head coach. The school vacated its nine-win 2011 season amid an NCAA investigation surrounding a former assistant, but the Ragin’ Cajuns have been a fixture in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, having played in it four consecutive years.
If you hop on Interstate 10 and travel 255 miles east from Lafayette, La., you’ll run into Mobile, Ala., and find South Alabama head coach Joey Jones. Jones, who played at Alabama under head coach Paul Bear Bryant, enjoyed early success as the Jaguars’ leading man, compiling a 17-0 record in 2009 and '10 in the program's first two seasons. He’s a career 41-32 in seven seasons in Mobile.
Both programs nabbed wins last week, as South Alabama defeated Idaho 52-45 and UL Lafayette escaped Georgia State 23-21. On the year, however, the two schools find themselves in the midst of 4-4 seasons. Tonight's winner will get one step closer to bowl eligibility.
UL Lafayette at South Alabama
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Spread: South Alabama -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. South Alabama linebacker Blake Dees
Dees, a Texas Tech transfer, sat out the 2014 season per NCAA rules. The yearlong absence, however, doesn't appear to have detracted from his ability to menace opposing offenses.
Dees is coming off of a school-record 20 tackles against Idaho. The senior’s 20 stops are the most registered this year by a Sun Belt player in a game. Last Saturday’s performance was his third double-digit tackle effort this season, as he registered 15 against Texas State and 13 against Gardner-Webb.
Dees’s name already is prominently featured in South Alabama's record books and he’s certain to add to the list before he graduates. His three career forced fumbles are tied for second all-time in school history. He’ll lead a defense that will be tasked with slowing down the Sun Belt’s fifth-ranked rushing attack (210.6 ypg).
2. UL Lafayette running back Elijah McGuire
McGuire scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter last year to seal the Ragin' Cajuns' 19-9 victory over the Jaguars. McGuire ended 2014 with 1,264 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He added 468 receiving yards and two touchdowns to his sophomore resume.
The reigning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year enters Thursday’s game 251 yards away from a second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. He also has nine rushing touchdowns through eight games. McGuire, a native of Houma, La., shredded Northwestern State for 162 rushing yards and five touchdowns in September, and three games later he ran for 170 and a score against Texas State. In three years at UL Lafayette, the talented back has already tallied 11 100-yard rushing games.
3. UL Lafayette special teams play
Despite having to replace a couple of veteran players, the Ragin’ Cajuns' special teams unit has performed well this year. LSU transfer and converted cornerback Jeryl Brazil, a junior, returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in his team’s 49-27 win against Texas State in early October. Punt returners Gary Haynes, a freshman wide receiver, and McGuire are a formidable duo that is capable of flipping the field on fourth down.
Brisbane, Australia, native and freshman punter Steven Coutts is currently averaging 43.5 yards per punt and has forced 19 fair catches. The Ragin’ Cajuns’ punting unit leads the Sun Belt in net punting with 40.0 yards per boot. Kicker Stevie Artigue has hit on eight of his 12 field goal attempts this season, and last week against Georgia State the freshman set a personal best when he connected on a 49-yard field goal in the third quarter.
In the three times these teams have met, the home team has snagged a victory. South Alabama last won in 2013, topping UL Lafayette 30-8. While history repeats itself, the Jaguars will need a near-perfect game to best the Ragin' Cajuns. Although the level of talent on these teams are fairly even, UL Lafayette's Mark Hudspeth is among the conference’s best coaches and highly regarded among Group of 5 teams in general. Look for him to have his team in position to secure its fifth win of the year, inching it even closer to another trip to the postseason.
Prediction: UL Lafayette 30, South Alabama 23
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.