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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 23 Louisiana out to prove that it belongs

Louisiana went 10-1 last season, including an early win over Iowa State, and has a few more opportunities to impress in 2021. The Ragin' Cajuns' schedule includes matchups with Liberty, which finished last year ranked 17th, along with Texas (19th) and Appalachian State (26th).

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 23 Louisiana

On Sept. 13, Louisiana found itself ranked by The Associated Press for the first time since 1943. That was a span of 1,109 straight AP Top 25 polls without being ranked, but the Ragin' Cajuns went 10-1 and finished last season No. 15. Now can the Sun Belt program become a permanent fixture in the rankings? Led by all-conference quarterback Levi Lewis, the Ragin' Cajuns have a couple of chances to prove last season was no fluke: Their 2021 schedule includes games against Liberty, which finished last year ranked 17th, and Texas, which was 19th. And conference foe Appalachian State received enough votes to be 26th.

Louisiana wasn't ranked in our preseason poll last year, but finished 15th in the AP's final poll.

For subscribers:2021 college football Top 25 gets facelift after spring season

About the Ragin' Cajuns

2020: 10-1 overall, 7-1 in the Sun Belt — first place in the East Division. The Sun Belt championship game matchup with Coastal Carolina was canceled, and Louisiana went on to beat UTSA 31-24 in the First Responder Bowl.

Coach: Billy Napier (28-11, all in three seasons at Louisiana). His coaching résumé includes assistant's stints at Alabama (twice) and Clemson.

Returning starters: 19 (10 offense, 9 defense)

Shoes to fill: RB Elijah Mitchell (49ers, 6th round), RB Trey Ragas (Raiders, UFA), offensive coordinator Rob Sale (New York Giants, OL)

Louisiana running back Chris Smith, scoring against Georgia State last season, is the team's top returning rusher and was a first-team All-Sun Belt kick and punt returner.

Catching up

After leading the team in rushing (878 yards), Mitchell was taken in the sixth round by San Francisco. It was the second straight year a Ragin' Cajun had been drafted; three Louisiana players went in 2020. ... There were five new assistant coach hires (cornerbacks, offensive line, inside linebackers, safeties and assistant offensive line), and Sale was replaced by two of his former assistants — Michael Desormeaux (TEs) and Tim Leger (WRs) were promoted to co-OCs. ... The Ragin' Cajuns' 2021 recruiting class ranked 69th nationally and was filled with three-star prospects. It won the Sun Belt recruiting crown.

Returning leaders

Passing: Levi Lewis 177-297-2,274, 19/7 (led team)

Rushing: Chris Smith 62-350-1 (3rd), QB Levi Lewis 55-335-5 (4th)

Receiving: Kyren Lacy 28-364-4 (led team), Jalen Williams 20-360-4 (2nd), Peter LeBlanc 23-334-1 (3rd)

Tackles: LB Lorenzo McCaskill 83 (led team), LB Ferrod Gardner 74 (2nd)

Sacks: LB Ferrod Gardner 7 (led team), DL Zi'Yon Hill 4 (2nd)

Interceptions: S Bralen Trahan 4 (led team), CBs Mekhi Garner and Eric Garror 3 (T-2nd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: QB Levi Lewis (2nd team), OL O'Cyrus Torrence (2nd), OL Max Mitchell (2nd), OL Ken Marks (3rd), OL Shane Vallot (3rd)

Defense: DL Zi'Yon Hill (2nd), DB Bralen Trahan (2nd), LB Lorenzo McCaskill (3rd), DB Eric Garror (3rd), LB Ferrod Gardner (hon. mention), DL Tayland Humphrey (hon. mention), CB Mekhi Garner (hon. mention), S Percy Butler (hon. mention)

Special teams: RET Chris Smith (1st), P Rhys Byrns (2nd)

The Ragin' Cajuns return lots of experience on the offensive line. Four linemen coming back logged double-digit starts, and a fifth started seven of the team's 11 games.

FYI

How the pandemic affected the Ragin' Cajuns: Because of COVID-19 issues with Coastal Carolina, the Sun Belt canceled its championship game, costing Louisiana the chance to avenge its only loss of the season, a 30-27 setback to the Chanticleers in October. Revenge might not be in the cards for this fall, either. Coastal Carolina and Louisiana, which were named Sun Belt co-champions, aren't on each other's regular-season schedule.

Entrenched in experience: Louisiana won’t be inexperienced in the trenches. Three defensive linemen who combined for 31 starts are back, including all-conference selection Zi'Yon Hill. Four offensive linemen logged double-digit starts last year, and tackle Carlos Rubio started seven times. Even the tight ends are experienced; Johnny Lumpkin and Pearse Migi combined for 15 starts.

Runnin' Cajuns: Louisiana averaged 213 rushing yards per game last year, which ranked 21st nationally. But the Ragin' Cajuns lost 70.6% of their rushing attack. And of the eight running backs on the roster, four have never recorded a college carry. Lewis has averaged 4 yards per carry in his career, and Smith was the team's third leading rusher. Transfer RB Jacob Kibodi had a 101-yard game against Louisiana while playing for Texas A&M in 2017.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Louisiana ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Ragin' Cajuns ranked in 2019:

Scoring: 29th (2019 — 10th, -19 spots)

Scoring defense: 31st (18th, -13)

Total offense: 43rd (8th, -35)

Total defense: 33rd (47th, +14)

Passing: 83rd (62nd, -21)

Pass defense: 6th (21st, +15)

Rushing: 21st (6th, -15)

Rush defense: 88th (82nd, -6)

Sacks: 90th (53rd, -37)

Interceptions: 3rd (61st, +58)

Red zone offense: 77th (46th, -31)

Red zone defense: 66th (9th, -57)

Turnover margin: T-13th (37th, +24)

Time of possession: 97th (104th, +7)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants it)

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 22 team. Want a hint?

This school started last season by losing its first five games but then won its final four.