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Napier, Louisiana Making Most of Opportunities

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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This is a team, in Billy Napier's first year, ready for the stretch run.

Louisiana has won three of four football games in the month of October, reconfiguring the standings in the Sun Belt West ahead of what will be a frenzied sprint to the finish. Red-hot, the Ragin' Cajuns have defeated Texas State, New Mexico State and Arkansas State to rally back to .500 overall. At 2-2 in league play, Louisiana is tied atop the division with rival Louisiana-Monroe. The Ragin' Cajuns, in head coach Billy Napier's first season, have a chance to play their way into the first-ever Sun Belt Conference Championship Game.

Saturday's victory over Arkansas State validates Louisiana league-wide. In a back-and-forth contest that produced 90 total points, the Ragin' Cajuns, fittingly, scored a dramatic late game-winner. Trey Ragas capped off an eleven-play drive with a short touchdown run on 3rd-and-goal, then the Louisiana defense forced four straight incompletions to seal the deal. The Ragin' Cajuns shook up the Sun Belt by toppling the pre-season division favorite. Entering November, Louisiana controls its own destiny for a conference crown.

Three of the Ragin' Cajuns' four losses have come to teams who have been slotted in the national top 25, the top-ranked defending champions included. After playing one of the toughest non-league schedules in all of Group-of-Five football, Louisiana has fought back from a 1-3 start. In their last three wins, the Ragin' Cajuns have scored 155 total points, an average of 51.7 points per game. This is a team, in Napier's first year, ready for the stretch run. 

The 39-year old Napier was groomed under the likes of Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Nick Saban at Alabama and is instilling a winning culture in Lafayette. Napier has Louisiana relentlessly chasing team goals; the Ragin' Cajuns are currently in an all-out sprint. They lead the Sun Belt in total offense at 465.8 yards per contest and rank in the top ten in the country, right behind the likes of College Football Playoff contenders Georgia and Clemson, at a full seven yards per play.

Louisiana has two of the league's top seven rushers, Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell, who have combined for 1,299 yards and 14 touchdowns. Quarterback Andre Nunez slots second in the conference with a passer rating of 157.8 and paces the Sun Belt with 8.62 yards per pass attempt. Wide receiver Ja'Marcus Bradley is tied for second in the league with six touchdown receptions. Edge rusher Bennie Higgins is tied for eighth in the conference with 3.5 sacks.

Napier has Louisiana making the most of its opportunities, literally and figuratively. The Ragin' Cajuns lead all of college football with a redzone touchdown rate of 84.6%. Additionally, they are converting 52.9% of their third down tries, good for fourth in the game. This is a team that is comfortable in the clutch. Eyes on the prize, Louisiana is working to make sure current trends continues.  

Upcoming games at Troy, at home against Georgia State and South Alabama and at Louisiana-Monroe await; results will tell the tale. The Ragin' Cajuns need just two more wins to get bowl eligible, but Napier's program has more on its mind. It's possible that the Sun Belt West could come down to the final week of the regular season and a trip north to face the rival Warhawks. Though Louisiana lost last season's double-overtime epic, the Ragin' Cajuns have won eight of the last ten in the series. 

Bolstered by recent success, Louisiana has the most momentum of any team in the division. The Ragin' Cajuns aren't just in a new era, they are now in contention.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports