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2011 New Orleans Bowl Preview

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns vs San Diego State Aztecs

It’s a most unlikely pairing of football teams which will gather in the city of New Orleans one week before Christmas, but this third bowl game of 2011 should be seen as a gift by each of the participants who will strap on the pads inside the Louisiana Superdome.

The first instinct for the San Diego State Aztecs is to feel disappointed with their 2011 season under first-year head coach Rocky Long. After all, SDSU played terribly in a 28-7 loss at Michigan this past September. The Aztecs went up against their 2010 coach, Brady Hoke, who accepted the Michigan job in the ensuing offseason. Seeing Hoke on the opposite sideline (the same held true for former offensive coordinator Al Borges, who joined Hoke in the move to Ann Arbor) filled San Diego State’s players with the desire to prove their worth. However, SDSU’s adrenaline served a negative purpose instead of a positive one. The overcharged Aztecs tried too hard and did not channel their energies into the feel and flow of the game. Running back Ronnie Hillman, the start of the offense and the most central meal ticket for the Aztecs all season long, fumbled twice against Michigan, and quarterback Ryan Lindley was no better. The 21-point setback began a clear trend for San Diego State in 2011: Plainly put, the Aztecs flopped in each of their games against elite foes. TCU, the eventual Mountain West Conference champion, turned back the mistake-prone Aztecs in San Diego. Boise State, a new member of the Mountain West, also whacked the defenseless Aztecs on the California coast. In many ways, San Diego State didn’t measure up with the big boys, and it’s always easy to lose confidence or self-esteem when those kinds of events repeat themselves.

However, when SDSU gives its season a second look, it will realize that it probably wasn’t going to win any of those games. Michigan, TCU and Boise State have all achieved much in 2011. Only against TCU – when San Diego State trailed by just six points (20-14) in the fourth quarter – was it reasonable to expect the Aztecs to prevail. For the most part, though, this team took care of business and subdued lower-tier opposition in the Mountain West. The only exception to this pattern was SDSU’s home-field loss to Wyoming. Multiple missed field goals led to a wrenching 30-27 loss which will be seen as the Aztecs’ true giveaway in 2011. Nevertheless, wins over Air Force and Colorado State reinforced the notion that SDSU’s 9-4 season in 2010 was not a one-hit wonder. The Aztecs are in position to go 9-4 if they can win the New Orleans Bowl. This team should view its trip to the Big Easy as a pre-Christmas present.

Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajuns should be even more thrilled to go to a bowl game. ULL is merely making its first-ever bowl appearance in 40 seasons of major college football. As a result, the New Orleans Bowl is a national coming-out party for the Cajuns and their immensely successful first-year head coach, Mark Hudspeth.

It’s a great time to be an up-and-coming coach in the Sun Belt Conference. Arkansas State boss Hugh Freeze won the conference in his first year and immediately jumped to Ole Miss to accept the head coaching job in Oxford, Mississippi, this past Monday. Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal will soon get a bigger head coaching offer. Then, consider the case of Hudspeth.

Louisiana-Lafayette has wondered through college football’s wilderness for decades, but Hudspeth, a former head coach at FCS-based North Alabama who was Mississippi State’s receivers coach in 2009 and 2010, took the ULL job before the 2011 season. In just one year, he has done what none of his predecessors had been able to do in Lafayette, Louisiana. ULL outscored the opposition this season, winning 36-31 and 37-34 shootouts at the start of the Sun Belt season against Florida International and Florida Atlantic. After winning those games in the crucible of crunch time, the Ragin’ Cajuns gained the confidence that had been missing in past seasons, when razor-close games just didn’t break their way… at least not with the regularity needed to win eight games and go to a bowl. Because of ULL’s ability to consistently prevail in tight, taut tussles, the Cajuns accumulated an 8-4 overall mark and a 6-2 Sun Belt record. Those numbers were good enough to vault Louisiana-Lafayette past Western Kentucky and into the Sun Belt’s second bowl slot behind league champion Arkansas State. Hudspeth has been the source of this revival, and he’ll know get a chance to match wits against Long, a veteran of the coaching wars who, prior to his arrival in San Diego, had coached at New Mexico for several seasons.

San Diego State rarely makes bowl games. This is just the Aztecs’ seventh bowl game in 43 seasons. However, a first-ever bowl game in 40 seasons gives Louisiana-Lafayette even more reason to celebrate this occasion. It’s always fun when two teams enjoy being in the same bowl game. Prepare to be entertained when the Aztecs and Cajuns compete on Dec. 17.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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