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OAYP Sun Belt Preview: Louisiana

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jim Johnson breaks down the 2019 Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns using his OAYP advanced metric.

It’s August and college football is just around the corner. To get ready for the Sun Belt season, I’ll be previewing each of the league’s teams through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric. In short, the formula takes each program’s opponent adjusted performance from 2018 and combines that score with the individual player scores that we have released throughout the offseason, in order to make it predictive.

These will be released in alphabetical order, so today we kick off the back half of the breakdowns with Louisiana.

Below you’ll find the team’s projected starting lineup, plus some key contributors, with each qualifying returnee’s marginal OAYP score and Sun Belt position ranking. The players with OAYP scores and rankings listed are full qualifiers. Players with OAYP scores but not rankings listed were second tier qualifiers, but did not meet the full qualifying threshold. Players with neither listed did not meet any qualifying threshold.

However, whereas the prior marginal OAYP rankings reflected each player’s number only relative to the Sun Belt, these scores are relative to Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area -- so the ACC and SEC, as well. This should more accurately reflect a given player’s efficiency and value since the sample size now includes over 600 players, so especially strong or weak groups in any particular league won’t skew the rankings anymore.

Billy Napier has this thing rolling. His first year in the league saw him win the West and then take full advantage of that momentum by inking the best signing class in the conference, in February. Now picked to repeat as division champs, the pieces are in place, but a brutal start to conference play will tell let everyone know pretty quickly whether or not they can do it again.

OFFENSE

2018 Offensive OAYP (Rank): 0.73 (2)
2019 Projected Offensive OAYP (Rank): 0.57 (2)
QB Ranking: 7
RB Ranking: 1
WR/TE Ranking: 3
OL Ranking: 1

For a team with so few questions to answer on offense, there is one pretty glaring one. Who’s playing quarterback? There was some uncertainty last season as well, but Andre Nunez stepped in and did a pretty good job, emerging as one of the more pleasant surprises in the Sun Belt. Brayden Hawkins’ scholarship situation was uncertain, but he was recently cleared and will be eligible. There is also a JUCO signee, Jai’ave Magalei, that could compete for the starting gig, and freshman Chandler Fields is in the mix, but this still feels like Levi Lewis’ job to lose.

On too small a sample size to even meet the secondary qualifying threshold, Lewis actually posted an OAYP score that would only fall behind App State’s Zac Thomas and Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts in the SBC. The body of work is still way too small to draw real conclusions from, but that number bodes far better for his future than the opposite. Plus, regardless of who ends up taking the snaps, they’ll have an abundance of help around them.

Quarterback controversy or not, having the best group of running backs in the conference running behind the best offensive line in the conference is a recipe for success. Elijah Mitchell boasts the highest marginal OAYP score of any returning ball carrier in the league, and is still well above the ‘superstar’ threshold, even compared to the ACC and SEC’s backs. According to CFB Reference, only 30 players since the turn of the century have had at least 13 rushing touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns in the same season, while averaging 6 or more yards per carry. Of that group -- which includes the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Mark Ingram, Larry Johnson, Melvin Gordon, and Chris Johnson -- Mitchell did so with the fewest touches. He gained at least five yards on 52.4% of his carries, averaged the most yards after contact per carry in the Sun Belt, and had more runs of 20+ yards than all but three players in the conference, despite ranking ninth in carries. Plus, when you factor in his receiving production, he had the most gains of 30+ yards from scrimmage in the league. A dynamic open field threat and pass catcher out of the backfield, this is one of the premier home run hitters in the Sun Belt.

And while OAYP did not look as kindly upon Trey Ragas, I’m still not convinced that he isn’t truly the best running back in the league. He also gained at least five yards on over half of his rushes, and posted a higher marginal efficiency rating than Mitchell, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ best returning Sun Belt running back, thanks in part to his league leading 852 yards after contact and 57 missed tackles forced. Then there’s Raymond Calais, who didn’t meet the full qualifying threshold, but on a secondary sample size posted the highest marginal OAYP of any running back in the conference, including Mitchell. He averaged a remarkable 9.31 yards per attempt, which increased to a smooth 10.0 in conference play, shredded defenses at the second level for an extra 11.46 yards per opportunity, and had a higher marginal efficiency and explosiveness than either of his counterparts. This three headed monster isn’t just a collection of uber-talented runners, either. It’s a complementary group with differing skill sets that is more than the sum of its parts. The fact that one could at least make a compelling argument for any of them as the best running back in the conference is terrifying.

Oh, and not that the Ragin’ Cajuns ever actually need to throw the ball, but if they choose to do so, they also possess one of the two best receivers in the Sun Belt. Ja’Marcus Bradley, second among SBC returnees in yards per route run, tied Corey Sutton atop the conference with ten receiving scores. He also brings back the highest contested catch rate in the league, reeling in 50% such targets in 2018, which is a good 10% higher than his nearest competitor, and almost 15% higher than even that of Sutton’s, who is third. Jarrod Jackson also has an opportunity for some upward mobility in the receiver ranks. Playing primarily from the slot, the loss of last year’s most targeted receiver, Ryheem Malone, should mean more looks for everyone else. Plus, with Bradley commanding some serious attention on the boundary, not to mention the aforementioned rushing attack, there should be ample opportunity for Jackson to find space. With the second highest marginal OAYP among SBC receivers on secondary sample sizes, this guy screams potential breakout star.

Then, of course, there’s arguably the single best position group in the Sun Belt leading the way up front. Robert Hunt and Kevin Dotson are, in some order, the best two blockers in the Sun Belt. OAYP gives Hunt the edge, but that’s not the end-all-be-all. Hunt does have the advantage of playing tackle, which is more valuable, but one could make a strong argument that Dotson is better, regardless of positional value. Plus, their marginal scores are calculated differently since each is relative to their respective positions. The tackle group this year is more top heavy, but the guard spot is arguably a little deeper. In any case, these two getting to play next one another is downright unfair. According to PFF, Hunt allowed only one sack and one QB hit in the regular season last year, and graded out as the league’s single best pass blocker. Dotson, meanwhile, gave up just four pressures and graded out as the best run blocking guard in the conference. Then, for as good as the Ragin Cajuns' top two guys are, it really has to be considered a big three, as the conference’s second best returning center, Cole Prudhomme, joins Dotson and Hunt to comprise an O-Line that a lot of power five teams would happily trade for their own. And as if that weren’t unfair enough, Ken Marks and Rico Robinson are also back.

Without a sure thing at quarterback, it’s hard to outright say that this will be a better offense than App State, as a whole, but there won’t be many better run games in all of college football. In some ways, being unstoppable at one thing may be better than being good at everything. It might not look as pretty as the offense in Boone, and they may not score as many points per game as the Mountaineers, but don’t be surprised of Louisiana leads the league in points per drive again, and that’s more important anyway.

DEFENSE

2018 Defensive OAYP: -1.24 (7)
2019 Projected Defensive OAYP: -0.91 (7)
EDGE Ranking: 4
DL Ranking: 8
LB Ranking: 7
CB Ranking: 8
S Ranking: 7

The pass rush was the best part of this defense a year ago, and that shouldn’t change. With both Bennie Higgins and Chauncey Manac back, the pair combines one of the more formidable edge duos in the Sun Belt, which should only be bolstered by a healthy Joe Dillon. Manac also doubled as one of the better run defenders in the league, grading out in the top five among returning edge defenders against the run, according to PFF, and tallying the second most stops, or tackles that constitute a win for the defense. Meanwhile, Higgins was one of the teams’ top two players in basically every major statistical category for front seven defenders last year.

The interior of the line lacks playmaking, but Travontae Booker and Zi’Yon Hill are two big bodies with plenty of upside. The run defense was abysmal last year, to a degree that almost doesn’t make sense. That should take a step forward, theoretically, even after losing LaDarrius Kidd.

At linebacker, Jacques Boudreaux is an above average linebacker, though his marginal OAYP took a hit when compared to the SEC and ACC, as well. Well rounded against both the run and the pass, the senior should do a perfectly serviceable job as the centerpiece of the defense.

The pass defense was brutal to start the year, and that hurt their numbers overall, but this was a group that seemed to get better every week. OAYP still doesn’t love the backend of the defense, but the numbers would assuredly be better if the games were weighted by recency, so there is reason for optimism. The bend-don’t-break unit got killed underneath a lot of the time, but did an adequate job of limiting big plays. Michael Jacquet possesses plus ball skills, and ranks third among conference returnees in pass breakups, while Deuce Wallace and Terik Miller were both solid in run support, if lacking in coverage.

Few defenses showed as marked, linear improvement as Louisiana’s did over the course of the 2018 season. That bodes well for 2019. Now, this won’t be the best in the league -- far from it, but I like their outlook a little bit better than OAYP does, and there are two all-conference caliber players setting the tone in Higgins and Manac. If the rest of the group showed similar offseason improvement to what they did in-season, this will be a competitive unit.

POSITION GROUP RANKINGS

1. Offensive Line
2. Running Backs
3. Pass Catchers
4. Edge Defenders
5. Defensive Line
6. Quarterbacks
7. Linebackers
8. Cornerbacks
9. Safeties

TOP 100 PLAYERS

These are the athletes listed in my annual preseason ranking of the 100 best players in the Sun Belt, which combines my personal opinion and the eye test with the OAYP metric.

2. OT Robert Hunt
3. OG Kevin Dotson
16. RB Elijah Mitchell
19. WR Ja’Marcus Bradley
20. RB Trey Ragas
30. C Cole Prudhomme
49. EDGE Bennie Higgins
55. RB Raymond Calais
67. LB Jacques Boudreaux
90. WR Jarrod Jackson
93. EDGE Chauncey Manac
98. DL Zi’Yon Hill

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Coach Napier is going to learn a lot about his team real quick once conference play rolls around. The week two matchup against App State has them as the biggest underdog they’ll be all year, and after going 0-2 against them a season ago, both by double digits, familiarity does not necessarily inspire confidence. That said, both of those games were on the road last year, and neither were decided by as many points as OAYP projects this one to be, so maybe that could be a closer game than the formula thinks. Still, that’s a probable loss, which is overcomable as long as Louisiana can pick up some wins elsewhere. Unfortunately, elsewhere will be a challenge during the early going, as the App State games sandwiched between two road games to Georgia Southern and Arkansas State. Louisiana would still be small dogs on a neutral site, per OAYP, to both those teams, but they have the top two home field advantages in the Sun Belt, according to The Action Network, so what were already tough matchups are only made that much harder.

Even so, at less-than-a-touchdown lines, those are plenty doable. Getting a win will be especially crucial, too, as their top challenger in the West doesn’t have to play App State this season. Assuming the Ragin’ Cajuns can get through that first three with at least a win at A-State, it should be smooth sailing from there until Troy, barring any unforeseen hiccups like the Coastal Carolina game in 2018. Troy, at home, is a winnable game, too. With three of their four projected losses by less than a touchdown, and all of their projected wins by almost eight points or more, getting back to the Sun Belt Championship is certainly feasible. However, with a much more challenging slate than Arkansas State will have to deal with, there is no room for error.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP