By Lindsay Rabalais
Some things are constants for Lafayette residents.
Endless lines for Meche’s king cakes. Bumper-to-bumper traffic on Ambassador Caffery. That person who always forgets Olde Tyme Grocery only takes cash.
Louisiana-Lafayette’s annual pilgrimage to New Orleans for the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl is quickly becoming another expected aspect of life in the 337 area code.
On Dec. 20, the Ragin’ Cajuns will play Nevada for their fourth consecutive New Orleans Bowl victory.
Louisiana-Lafayette announced Dec. 3 that the Cajuns would appear in the New Orleans Bowl during halftime of the Cajuns’ basketball game against Jackson State.
The announcement came later than expected, due to Georgia Southern’s appeal for bowl eligibility. According to NCAA rules, the Eagles are not eligible to play in any bowls because they are in their last year of transition from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Georgia Southern’s appeal was denied. Had they been successful in attaining bowl eligibility, they almost certainly would have received one of the Sun Belt Conference’s three bowl game berths. The Eagles were 8-0 in the Sun Belt this year, and they won the Sun Belt Conference title.
Their loss is the Cajuns’ gain.
With the conference champion out of consideration, the Cajuns were a solid and time-tested choice.
The Cajuns have made four consecutive appearances at the New Orleans Bowl, and the short distance between Lafayette and New Orleans helps bolster attendance. The bowl’s attendance record has been broken in each of the last three years; 54,728 fans attended last year’s game against Tulane.
Louisiana-Lafayette’s now-regular appearances definitely benefit the New Orleans Bowl. But how do the Cajuns feel about it?
“I think it’s a great fit,” Coach Mark Hudspeth said after the Dec. 3 announcement. “It’s been a great fit.”
Hudspeth emphasized that although Cajun fans have traveled well for the past three New Orleans Bowls, his team also deserves to play in this bowl because of its athletic ability.
“It’s got to be a reward to go to a bowl,” Hudspeth said. “It’s a great opportunity, great bowl, great amenities and they do a great job.”
However, some Cajun fans are ready for a change of scenery.
“I’m glad they’re going to a bowl game, but it’s time for something different,” said Jacob Laborde, a Cajun fan and Louisiana-Lafayette alumnus. “Something outside of Louisiana would be nice.”
The program has had a long-overdue boost since Coach Hudspeth took the reins in 2011.
The Cajuns finished this season 8-4, a marked improvement from seasons like 2010, when the team won only 3 of their 12 games.
Louisiana-Lafayette is also on track for a $115 million expansion of its athletic facilities, providing further legitimacy to the program.
Furthermore, the Cajuns hold the distinction of being one of only six teams that have won a postseason game in each of the past three seasons. The other schools include College Football Playoff contenders Oregon and Florida State, along with Michigan State, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
As the program expands and becomes more renowned, the New Orleans Bowl could become the proverbial small pond that the Cajuns eventually outgrow.
Still, the New Orleans Bowl has not lost its appeal for some of the Cajun faithful.
Many Cajun fans are as excited for this New Orleans Bowl as they were for their first appearance in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in 2011.
“It’s exciting to support the team,” said Cajun fan Clare Daly Thom, who attended the first New Orleans Bowl the Cajuns played in. “They work so hard. I’m happy Coach Hud believes in their potential and motivates them to perform to the best of their abilities.”
A fourth consecutive trip to the Superdome might seem banal to more well-traveled teams whose bowl experiences span the nation. However, a glance at the Cajuns’ bowl history provides some context for their unwavering support for the New Orleans Bowl.
Before the Cajuns’ first New Orleans Bowl appearance, they had not played in a bowl game in 41 years. When the Cajuns became New Orleans Bowl champs in 2011, it was their first bowl win since the 1943 season – and only the second bowl win in the school’s history.
Moreover, New Orleans – though familiar – is no less exotic than the locales of the other two contracted Sun Belt Conference bowls.
The Sun Belt has three contracted bowl game berths this season: one in the New Orleans Bowl, one in the GoDaddy Bowl (in Mobile, Ala.) and one in the inaugural Camellia Bowl (in Montgomery, Ala.)
“In my opinion, because I’m from New Orleans, I would much rather go there, because I had always dreamed of playing in the Superdome, and I was blessed to be there in the past three years,” said starting receiver James Butler in an interview with The Advocate.
“It’s a great way to end my career.”