NEW ORLEANS — Rocky Long and Mark Hudspeth have enjoyed charmed first seasons in their new head coaching jobs.
Long's San Diego State and Hudspeth's Louisiana-Lafayette each won eight games and collide in the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday night.
The foundation each started with, however, was entirely different.
The Ragin' Cajuns (8-4) weren't supposed to be anywhere near bowl contention, according to various preseason polls.
Instead they won eight games for the first time since Jake Delhomme was a freshman quarterback in 1993 to qualify for their first bowl game in 41 years and first ever as a Division I FBS program.
The Aztecs (8-4) are in their second straight bowl and seeking a second straight nine-win season.
"We were picked 120 (out of 120 FBS teams) by one poll, 118 by another, and don't think I didn't use that," said Hudspeth, who last December left Dan Mullen's staff at Mississippi State to take his first Division I head coaching post. "If you don't go to work every day with that in the back of your mind, you don't have any pride in yourself. I know it got to me, and I hope it got to those kids, and I think it did with the way they worked."
The Cajuns spent most of the season in contention for a Sun Belt Conference title before finally dropping to third with a 6-2 league record. That was still good enough for a bid to New Orleans, which is only about two hours east on Interstate 10 from Louisiana-Lafayette's idyllic red-brick campus, replete with a preserved portion of swamp habitat, in the heart of Acadiana.
Predictably, the Cajuns' bowl-starved faithful have snapped up thousands of tickets and are descending in force upon the Big Easy.
"It's almost like having another home game," said Cajuns quarterback Blaine Gautier, who needs one more TD pass to break Delhomme's school record of 20 in a season. "We're expecting a huge crowd from Lafayette. It's beautiful."
Long knows what kind of advantage that could be for his opponent. He was defensive coordinator at SDSU last season, when the Aztecs played in their home stadium and beat Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.
"It makes me really nervous," Long said. "In my opinion, it's exactly the same situation, in reverse.
"I know they don't get the same notoriety as some other schools in this state," Long continued, referring to No. 1 LSU. "But they're a great football team. I don't think they started out that way, but they've gained confidence."
Long, a former head coach at New Mexico, did not have to oversee the type of turnaround Hudspeth pulled off. Still, Long was part of Brady Hoke's successful effort to change the fortunes of an SDSU program that had endured nine seasons without a winning record when they arrived before the 2009 season. In their second season, they recorded the program's first bowl victory since 1969. Last winter, Hoke was hired away by Michigan and Long was promoted.
"Last year was one of those teams that had a lot of talent, played very well and with each win gained some confidence," Long said. "This season started with high expectations."
The Aztecs' success this season has stemmed largely from their running game and defense.
Ronnie Hillman rushed for 1,656 yards this season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry, and became the first Aztec rusher since New Orleans native Marshall Faulk to string together consecutive 1,500-yard seasons.
Hillman likes the idea of playing a bowl game in Faulk's hometown.
"Everybody knows if you're going to be a good running back (at SDSU), you've got to chase his records," Hillman said.
The Aztecs' defense led the Mountain West conference in interceptions (14), sacks (28) and tackles for loss (81).
Senior cornerback Larry Parker had seven interceptions, third most in a season in SDSU history, while senior linebacker Miles Burris led the way in tackles (72), tackles for loss (19) and sacks (eight).
The Cajuns will counter the Aztecs' defensive pressure with Gautier's mobility (his 464 yards rushing was second on the team) and his ability to make hot reads to 6-foot-6 tight end Ladarius Green, an NFL prospect with 485 yards receiving and seven TDs.
Hudspeth also hopes his players will feed off the emotion that is bound to permeate the Cajuns' sideline.
"Most of our guys grew up in the Dome watching the Saints, dreaming of playing on that field," Hudspeth said. "Now a lot of our guys are going to play their last game in the Dome on that same field."