After an early wake-up call in Shreveport, I returned to southern Alabama for the second consecutive weekend, this time for tomorrow night's Sun Belt Conference opener between Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette. My partner for this game will be former Florida State offensive lineman Forrest Conoly, and we had a great time this afternoon touring the Troy campus and talking with Trojans head coach Larry Blakeney. One thing to watch for on the broadcast: There's a slight height differential. As in, Forrest stands 6-foot-7, and I would be generously listed as 6-foot-0. We'll see if the camera can fit us in the same picture.
Turning to the game, I think it's going to be a good one. Troy was 3-9 last year, but the Trojans dominated the conference from 2006-10, and they haven't lost a home opener since the mid-1980s (24 wins in a row since a tie in 1987). With an enthusiastic crowd expected, this is their chance to prove to themselves and their fans that they can contend for the conference title once again.
On the other side, Louisiana-Lafayette (they prefer just 'UL') may have the most momentum of any program in the conference. The Ragin Cajuns (can't say that nickname enough) are coming off of the best season in school history (9-4) and a dramatic New Orleans Bowl victory over San Diego State. That energized their passionate fan base, which had the largest attendance increase in the NCAA last year, and has helped second-year head coach Mark Hudspeth's recruiting efforts for the future.
Both teams see themselves as Sun Belt contenders and have reason to believe they can win the tone-setting conference opener. What I'm excited about for tomorrow night:
1. The atmosphere
Troy is an under-the-radar football hotbed. A long-time Division II powerhouse that transitioned to Division I back in 2002, Trojan fans have tremendous pride in their history of conference titles and NFL players. (For the record, I've had healthy respect for them since they kicked my Rice Owls' butts in the 2006 New Orleans Bowl.) I expect Troy fans to come out in force for the home opener, but I also expect Ragin Cajun fans to travel well and provide some support for the visitors. If the rain holds off (which remains a bit iffy, but we can hope), 33,000-seat Veterans Memorial Stadium should be rocking.
Any discussion of these two teams has to start with their signal-callers, the MVPs of the last two New Orleans Bowl games. Troy junior Corey Robinson set a national high-school record with 91 touchdown passes in one season as a senior in Paducah, Kent., and he's thrown for 3,400+ yards in back-to-back seasons. On the other side, UL senior Blaine Gautier makes the Cajuns go. He can throw the deep ball - although he was erratic downfield in the season-opening win - and scramble when necessary. He tied Jake Delhomme's school record with five career games of 300+ yards passing, except Gautier did it in a single season. Yeah, these guys can play.
3. Second, third, fourth chances
Both teams have guys who have overcome long odds, adversity, or their own mistakes to become productive collegiate players. For example, Troy walk-on linebacker De'Von Terry, the reigning SBC Defensive Player of the Week, used to be excused from some practices by Blakeney so he could earn enough money to stay in school. Lafayette linebacker Le'Marcus Gibson and Troy safety Barry Valcin are both sixth-year seniors who had to apply for extra years of collegiate eligibility, while Gibson and teammates Tig Barksdale and Delvin Jones are both playing at their third school. These are just some examples, but we're going to be watching a lot of seriously motivated guys tomorrow night.
4. The big men
They may not be quite as big as my esteemed partner, but both teams have some big guys up front who you will definitely notice. As Blakeney put it, "the guys who hit each other on every play" are going to play a big role. Each team has three linemen upwards of 290 pounts, led by the Quave brothers - Daniel and Mykhael - at guard for UL and Troy center Kyle Wilborn. On the defensive side, watch for Lafayette nose tackle Justin Hamilton, a 330-pound sophomore who forced two fumbles against Lamar, and the speed of Troy ends Tony Davis and Marty Stadom.
5. Throwback kickers
Both teams employ specialists who handle punting and placekicking, which seems kind of old-school. Lafayette's Brett Baer is closing in on the NCAA record for kicking accuracy and hit from 50+ yards last week. He's also 7-for-9 on onside kicks in his career, recovering four of them himself. Troy's Will Scott, a junior college transfer signed for his punting, won the kicking spot and hit from 44 yards against UAB. If my opener was any indication, one or both of these guys could be lining up some high-pressure kicks on Saturday night. I hope you'll tune in to see it.
Saturday night's game will kick off at 7 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.