Louisiana returns 20 starters from a team that finished the 2020 campaign with a 10-1 record. The Ragin’ Cajuns suffered their lone defeat to Coastal Carolina — which went 11-1 with its only loss coming in overtime to Liberty, a team that went 10-1 with its setback coming by one at North Carolina St. — by three points and saw their rematch in the Sun Belt Championship Game cancelled due to an abundance of positive tests for COVID-19.
Billy Napier’s team opens this year at Texas on Sept. 4. As of July 21, most spots had the Longhorns listed as 9.5-point home favorites. However, William Hill has Steve Sarkisian’s squad installed as a 10.5-point ‘chalk’ and DraftKings has the number at -10.
Louisiana went into Ames in Week 1 of last season and beat Iowa State 31-14 as an 11.5-point underdog. The Cyclones ended up in the Big 12 Championship Game and finished the year ranked in the Top 10 nationally.
Napier’s bunch won all six of its true road assignments in 2020 and owns an 11-1 record in its last 12 road games. The only road loss in this span was a 45-38 setback at 20th-ranked Appalachian St. in the 2019 SBC Championship Game.
Phil Steele’s preseason magazine highlights three of UL’s position groups in his National Unit Rankings. The Ragin’ Cajuns are ranked seventh in the country in special teams, 12th on the offensive line and 15th in the secondary.
They lost only 12 lettermen and have added nine transfers out of the portal, including seven from Power Five programs. Napier also brought in the league’s top recruiting class with 19 three-star commitments. Three of those 19 prospects earned ‘Very Highly Touted’ status from Steele’s magazine, including juco defensive tackle Nijel McGriff, a 6-foot-2, 285-pounder who will supply d-line depth right away.
The only notable losses were the departures of RBs Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell, who was a sixth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Mitchell was a first-team All-SBC selection in 2020 and a second-team choice in 2019.
Ragas, who will be in training camp with the Las Vegas Raiders as an undrafted free agent, is third in program history in career rushing yards (3,572). He scored 43 touchdowns for the Ragin’ Cajuns in the past four seasons (38 rushing, five receiving).
Nevertheless, Napier has a third-year sophomore RB in Chris Smith that’s explosive and ready for more touches. Smith finished fourth in the SBC in all-purpose yards last season with 1,137. He ran for 359 yards and one TD, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Smith also had 16 catches for 170 yards and one TD. Steele’s magazine lists him as a second-team preseason All-American as a kickoff returner. He had two kickoff returns for TDs in 2020.
Depth has been added in the backfield with Texas A&M transfer Jacob Kiboldi, a former three-star RB recruit out of Baton Rouge who had 270 rushing yards and two TDs on 45 attempts (6.0 YPC) with the Aggies from 2017-2019.
Senior QB Levi Lewis had made 28 career starts, throwing for 6,286 yards while also rushing for 745 yards. He has a stellar 54/14 career touchdown-to-interception ratio and nine rushing TDs. Lewis averaged 6.1 YPC and was sacked only seven times in 2020. He is third in school history in career passing yards.
Lewis has his five leading pass catchers back from last season, including WR Kyren Lacy, who had 28 receptions for 364 yards and four TDs as a true freshman. This unit adds TCU transfer John Stephens, who has played in 25 games for the Horned Frogs.
Lewis and the RBs will work behind an offensive line that has 140 career starts. This group has added ULM transfer OL TJ Fiailoa, who started 32 career games for the Warhawks.
Steele’s magazine lists junior OT Max Mitchell as a preseason first-team All-SBC selection. OG O’Cyrus Torrence (2nd-team), OG Ken Marks (3rd-team) and center Shane Vallot (4th-team) also earned preseason All-SBC honors from Steele.
Smith isn’t the only strength for the special-teams units. Junior punter Rhys Byrns has started 39 career games and is a two-time, second-team All-SBC pick. Steele’s magazine lists Byrns as the No. 22 draft-eligible punter for the 2022 NFL Draft.
There’s also punt returner Eric Carror, who is a preseason first-team All-SBC choice in Steele’s mag. Carror had an 83-yard punt return for a TD in the upset win at Iowa St.
UL’s 2020 defense gave up an average of 22.0 points per game. This unit returns its top 13 leading tacklers who each had at least 26 stops. Garror has 30 career starts at cornerback, garnering third-team All-SBC honors last year when he had three interceptions. The other CB, sophomore Mekhi Garner, had three interceptions and seven passes broken up in 2020.
Junior safety Bralen Trahan was a second-team All-SBC pick last year when he produced 48 tackles, nine PBU, four interceptions, 2.5 tackles for loss and one QB hurry. Finally, junior safety Percy Butler rounds out the SBC’s premier secondary. He has 21 career starts and tallied six PBU, two interceptions and one sack in 2020.
Texas finished last season with a 7-3 straight-up record and a 5-5 against-the-spread mark. The Longhorns lost star QB Sam Ehlinger, who is the program’s second all-time leading passer with 11,436 career passing yards.
UT saw its head coach Tom Herman fired, replacing him with Sarkisian, the former HC at Washington and USC. Sarkisian was fired at USC for showing up to work with alcohol on his breath multiple times.
He has rehabilitated his image and been sober for many years. Sarkisian did brilliant work as Alabama’s OC over the last couple of seasons.
For what it’s worth, Texas shared a common foe with UL last season. That would be the Cyclones, who won 23-20 in Austin in a pick ’em affair.
Texas is 7-12 ATS in its last 19 games as a home favorite. In three of the last four seasons, the Longhorns have lost outright as double-digit favorites in September. They fell to Maryland in their openers in 2017 and 2018 before falling to TCU at home last year in Week 3.
During his tenure at Louisiana, Napier owns a 7-2-1 spread record in 10 games as a road underdog. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 7-1-1 ATS with four outright wins in their last nine games as road ‘dogs. The lone non-cover came in a 45-38 loss at Appalachian St. when they lost by the hook while catching 6.5 points.
Napier is 3-0 ATS with a pair of outright wins in his three season openers with the program. The outright loss was a 38-28 defeat against Mississippi St. in the 2019 curtain jerker at the Superdome in New Orleans. UL easily covered the spread as a 19-point underdog.
Chemistry is high within the UL program, especially with Napier pulling himself out of consideration for an SEC job after Auburn showed interest.
With a new coach along with his schemes that were unfamiliar going into spring practice, there’s going to be a learning curve for the 2021 Longhorns. Without experience at the QB position and with a suspect defense — one that returns seven starters after allowing 28.5 PPG — I smell all the ingredients of a Week 1 upset.
THE PICK: Louisiana +10 at Texas.