Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is seen during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Independents and Group of Five National Signing Day Recap: Irish bounce back, Memphis tops AAC

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Outside of the Power Five conferences, recruiting went about as expected in 2017.

Notre Dame continued to pound the national trail and landed a top 12 class full of players who will be expected to play early. BYU managed another impressive group that was one of the most diverse out there. The schools with a talent-rich backyard to draw on did well in the AAC.  Boise State was once again tops in the Mountain West and did better than a few peers in the region. And yes, Lane Kiffin earned that recruiting reputation by pulling in the best class of Conference USA.

Though there wasn’t much drama outside the top schools, there nevertheless was plenty of action for many programs on National Signing Day.

Top recruits (all rankings via 247Sports Composite): No. 67 overall Brock Wright (TE, Notre Dame), No. 154 overall Chaz Ah You (DB, BYU), Aisa Kelemete (DE, Boise State), Nick Robinson (TE, Memphis), Nicholas Sims (RB, Toledo)

Top classes: Notre Dame (No. 11 overall), Memphis (No. 58 overall), Boise State (No. 60 overall), BYU (No. 65 overall), Florida Atlantic (No. 71 overall), Toledo (No. 74 overall), Texas State (No. 87 overall)

Biggest storyline: Irish still land solid recruiting class

Despite the worst season in South Bend since Charlie Weis and a nearly brand new coaching staff, Notre Dame still managed to cobble together a top 12 class on Signing Day. Tight end Brock Wright was the highest rated player and should see early playing time but the number of quality offensive linemen was really evident in the group Brian Kelly signed. Will it be enough to help with a big turnaround? We’ll see.

Biggest surprise: Memphis runs away with things in the AAC but new coaches still fared well

Given all the turnover in the American this year, it should probably come as no surprise that the Tigers pulled the top recruiting class in the conference. That’s a testament to what Mike Norvell is building with the program and the fact that they don’t have to go far for players. Many of the same factors played a role in Scott Frost landing the second-best class at UCF. It was also pretty impressive what Luke Fickell did on the recruiting trail at Cincinnati and Charlie Strong did at USF given those two didn’t have a ton of time to get things lined up.

Don’t sleep on: Boise State, Colorado State

The Broncos were once again the class of the Mountain West on the recruiting trail and fended off several Pac-12 schools for prospects. That will put them firmly in the mix to win the league again in 2017 but don’t overlook another good job by Mike Bobo and staff at Colorado State in landing 17 three-star players.

We’ll see about: Everybody else

NCAA denies appeal for extra year for Louisiana-Lafayette QB Anthony Jennings

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 17: Xavier Thigpen #32 of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles and Ja'Boree Poole #85 pressure Anthony Jennings #11 of the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 17, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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The football-playing career for Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Anthony Jennings has officially come to a close. An appeal for an extra year of eligibility was denied by the NCAA, according to coach Mark Hudspeth.

I’m very disappointed for Anthony,” Hudspeth told The Daily Advertiser. “I would’ve loved to have seen what he could’ve done with a year under his belt in our system.”

Getting an extra year for Jennings was believed to be a long shot, but there is no harm in trying. According to The Daily Advertiser, the case for Jennings was focused on Jennings being used sparingly during the 2015 season as a junior at LSU. Jennings appeared in two games for the Tigers in 2015 and recorded no stats. He transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette at the end of the 2015 season and was given a chance to play a significant role with the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Louisiana-Lafayette now has a bit of a concern at quarterback for the upcoming season. The program returns reserve options Jordan Davis, Dion Ray and Jake Arceneaux, who redshirted last season. All three will be expected to be given a chance to compete starting this spring for the starting job this fall.

New Mexico State putting together FBS independent schedule for 2018

STATESBORO, GA - OCTOBER 17:  Quarterback Andrew Allen #8 of the New Mexico State Aggies attempts a pass against the Georgia Southern Eagles during the second quarter on October 17, 2015 at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Georgia.  (Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages)
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The Sun Belt is giving Idaho and New Mexico State the old heave ho after next season, and college football’s newest orphans are going about their futures in separate ways. Idaho has announced it will join the Big Sky Conference beginning in 2018, while New Mexico State is going to go it alone as an FBS independent.

Which means, obviously, New Mexico State will have to build its own schedule, each and every year.

The Aggies have begun doing so for 2018. On Monday they announced a home-and-home with Wyoming that will see the Cowboys visit Las Cruces on Aug. 25, 2018 — New Mexico State’s first game as an independent — while the Aggies will make a return visit to Laramie on Sept. 21, 2024.

It will be the two programs’ first meetings since 1953 — the only time New Mexico State and Wyoming have met on the field.

“Deputy AD Braun Cartwright and I have put in an enormous amount of time on football scheduling with the focus on securing games with regional Group of 5 opponents,” New Mexico State AD Mario Moccia said earlier this week. “Unlike in 2013 when we played four Power 5 conference programs, which had ripple effects on future year’s schedules, we have really focused on the home-and-home model.”

On Thursday, New Mexico State another home-and-home with current Sun Belt bunkmate Louisiana-Lafayette. New Mexico State will visit Lafayette on either Sept. 8 or Oct. 6, 2018, while the Ragin’ Cajuns will return the favor on Nov. 16, 2019.

New Mexico State also has a previously scheduled game at Minnesota on Aug. 30, leaving nine games still to be filled. The Aggies could seemingly find dance partners in fellow FBS independents BYU, Army and Massachusetts (Notre Dame is a different story), but even then New Mexico State still has to fill seven more games with the 2018 season only 20 months away.

Southern Miss aerial attack too much for UL-Lafayette in New Orleans Bowl

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 17: Ito Smith #25 of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles celebrates a touchdown with Korey Robertson #18 during the first half of a game against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 17, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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Allenzae Staggers already set the school record for receiving yards in a game this year.

He did his best to try and break it again on Saturday night as Southern Miss’ aerial attack was too much for UL-Lafayatte in 28-21 victory in the New Orleans Bowl.

Staggers did most of his damage in the first half but finished with a remarkable 230 yards on 11 catches with one touchdown. His stellar play in slicing up the Ragin’ Cajuns’ secondary played a big role in the Golden Eagles’ offensive success and allowed senior quarterback Nick Mullens to close out his career with 346 yards, two scores and an interception that came off a deflection.

Tailback Ito Smith also had an impressive night to end the season, rushing for 138 yards and two touchdowns while adding another score through the air.

That was all too much for Louisiana to overcome. Quarterback Anthony Jennings did take advantage of a turnover to cut the lead to one score late in the fourth quarter but was otherwise mediocre with just 95 yards passing on eight completions (he did rush for two scores). Elijah McGuire chipped in with 96 yards on the ground as well.

The victory caps off an up-and-down 2016 for Southern Miss in which the team rallied to beat Kentucky in the opener but struggled down the stretch when Mullens missed time with injuries.

Those issues were forgotten about on Saturday however, as the night belonged to the ever productive Staggers and the impressive aerial attack of the Golden Eagles in a fun one from the Superdome.

Southern Miss WR Allenzae Staggers goes off but it’s all tied up at halftime in the New Orleans Bowl

BATON ROUGE, LA - OCTOBER 15:  Nick Mullens #9 of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles drops back to pass against the LSU Tigers during the first quarter at Tiger Stadium on October 15, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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If you didn’t catch much of Conference USA this season, you probably don’t know the name Allenzae Staggers. If you watched the first half of the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday night though, you certainly won’t forget the name.

The Southern Miss wide receiver caught seven passes for a whopping 202 yards in just two quarters worth of work as the Golden Eagles went into halftime tied with UL-Lafayatte at 14-all.

Staggers connection with quarterback Nick Mullens (13-of-22, 247 yards, one touchdown) was apparent from the get-go in the game as they sliced through the opposing secondary. Tailback Ito Smith also got into the action by catching a touchdown and scoring another on the ground but the offense wasn’t quite as effective after their first few series.

The Ragin Cajuns refused to back down however, answering one score with a touchdown of their own to cap a 66 yard drive. The team scored again after recovering a fumble and used backup quarterback Dion Ray on the keeper to find the end zone and tie the game up midway through the second quarter.

Starter Anthony Jennings was mostly ineffective for the team as he went just 4-of-10 passing for 38 yards and an interception.

While the game wasn’t super high scoring and marred by a few bad plays on either side, there was enough in the first half to suggest that we could be in for a wild one from the Superdome. Given how past New Orleans Bowls have gone, that would certainly be appropriate.