When you run a Google News search for Louisiana Tech, auto-fill gives you the following options:
Football trumps university, and football's uncertain future trumps football. Sounds about right.
In two years at the helm, Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Dykes has furthered Derek Dooley's work, making a rock-solid mid-major program in Ruston. And it couldn't come at a better time. Tech may have missed out on Conference USA or Mountain West membership in the past, but with almost every WAC and Sun Belt team looking to get in on whatever comes of Mount USA, Louisiana Tech looks as well-positioned as anybody. But until they land on a larger lily pad, everything is terribly uncertain. All the Bulldogs can do is build off of last year's conference title and attempt to establish themselves as the preeminent program in what remains of the WAC. With quite a few interesting returnees and an entire coaching staff returning intact, the prognosis is solid.
Tech has been hovering around league average for a WAC team in recent years, at least since Jack Bicknell left following the disastrous (3-10) 2006 season. Derek Dooley and now Sonny Dykes have brought Tech back to a respectable level, and it would appear the upside with Dykes is solid. The 2011 campaign, not a particularly easy one (enjoy that Fresno-Oxford-Reno three-game road trip in November, guys), will likely preclude any major success, but improvement from both Colby Cameron through the air and Tech's defensive front on the ground could bring about somewhat realistic bowl hopes. The home games against Houston and Hawaii will be key, however. This schedule is not built for a late charge to bowl eligibility.
Shows what I know. After a 1-4 start that featured tight losses to Southern Miss, Houston and Mississippi State, Louisiana Tech indeed made a "late charge to bowl eligibility," winning their final seven games of the regular season, winning the WAC, and narrowly losing to an improved TCU team in the Poinsettia Bowl. The defense was one of the best mid-major units in the country, and the offense had its moments. To keep up the momentum this year, the offense will need to carry some more weight while the D attempts to account for the loss of a few difference-makers.
Despite Sonny Dykes' Airraid background, his Bulldogs were a defense-oriented team in 2011. They did run their offense at a pretty high pace, but that was almost to their detriment. An efficient running game allowed them to move the chains, but with freshman quarterback Nick Isham initially running the show, they were mostly hopeless on passing downs. Eventually junior Colby Cameron took over behind center, but he only improved matters so much. This offense went as far as the running game took it, though for a good portion of the season, that took them far enough.
Though the run game was solid, this was still an attempted Sonny Dykes offense. Tech passed the ball slightly more than average on both standard downs and passing downs, but the passing game lacked the requisite big-play threats to make the forward pass more of a weapon. Quinton Patton was, and is, a strong No. 1, averaging 8.5 adjusted yards per target last season, but Tech needed more from the supporting cast. No. 2 man Taulib Ikharo averaged just 5.1 adjusted yards per target, and other targets like David Gru (6.1) and Richie Casey (2.0) left something to be desired.
There is hope for the receiving corps, however. First, Patton returns. The former three-star recruit caught 78 passes for 1,177 yards, with a catch rate of 62.4 percent. He caught seven of 13 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown (12.5 yards per target) in Tech's win over Nevada, five of eight for 116 yards and two touchdowns (14.5 per target) against San Jose State, and eight of 12 for a whopping 211 yards and two touchdowns in a tight early win over Central Arkansas. Presumptive new No. 2 man Myles White, a Michigan State transfer, is beginning to look the part as well. White had an up-and-down junior season, catching 30 of 47 balls for 408 yards, but he is having a nice spring. If he can top Ikhauro's numbers, and if a newcomer like junior college transfer Jon Greenwalt or freshman Jaydrick Declouet (each are three-star signees) can make an immediate impact, then this is a much deeper, more exciting unit than a year ago.
Of course, the passing game could also improve just because of experience behind center. Isham won the starting job and, as would be expected, had his ups and downs. He was sacked nearly seven percent of the time and averaged just 4.8 yards per pass attempt -- 2.0 in a tight win over Utah State, 4.7 in a tight loss to Mississippi State, and 4.8 in a loss to Hawaii. When Cameron took over, things improved, but only so much. The Bulldogs went 7-1 with Cameron, but a lot of that was due to the fact that the schedule got easier. For the season, Tech averaged 25.8 Adj. PPG when Isham started, 27.5 with Cameron. But both are a year older, wiser, et cetera, now; Cameron is expected to hold onto the job, but Isham isn't as far behind as it would seem.
Regardless of whether the passing game improves, the Bulldogs should still have a nice running game on which to lean. Though Lennon Creer (838 yards, nine touchdowns) departs, sophomore Hunter Lee returns. On a per-carry basis, Lee topped Creer last season and looked great when given the opportunity; he had 24 carries for 127 yards versus Ole Miss and 26 for 148 versus New Mexico State. Little-used back Lyle Fitte may factor into the rotation this season, along with incoming three-star freshman Kenneth Dixon. But no matter who is carrying the ball, they should get a lot of help from a line that returns 93 career starts. Center Stephen Warner was an all-conference performer last year, while guard Kevin Saia and tackle Jordan Mills have each started for two seasons. The line was the WAC's best last year -- 53rd in Adj. Line Yards, 65th in Adj. Sack Rate -- and almost certainly will again this fall despite the loss of all-conference left tackle Kris Cavitt. Nine of ten from last year's two-deep return, including seven seniors. That does not portend great things for 2013, but this is 2012.
It is easy to look at the offense and assume improvement -- both starting quarterbacks return, along with a solid running back, six of the top seven receivers, and nine of ten from last year's offensive line two-deep. It is just as easy to assume regression from what was a surprisingly fantastic defense. The Bulldogs must replace their top two defensive ends, three of their top four linebackers and both starting cornerbacks. There are still quite a few interesting pieces, but it takes quite a leap of faith to convince yourself there won't be a dropoff.
We'll start up front. The Bulldogs were excellent against the run, and opponents knew it. Opponents passed the ball against Tech six percent more than the national average on standard downs, four percent more on passing downs. They had no choice, really; Tech was 21st in Rushing S&P+, ninth in Rushing PPP+ (an explosiveness measure). Mississippi State's Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins combined to average just 4.0 yards per carry against Tech. TCU's Ed Wesley, Wayman James and Matthew Tucker? 3.9. Nevada's Lampford Mark? 3.9. Ole Miss' Brandon Bolden? 3.3. The line, which does return the top three tackles, got a nice push, and the linebackers and safeties swarmed to the ball.
Tech will need to hope that the safeties were equally responsible for the swarming as the linebackers, as tackling machines Adrien Cole (middle linebacker) and Jay Dudley (strongside linebacker) are gone. They combined for 182.0 tackles (22.8 percent of the team's total), 21 tackles for loss, five interceptions and eight passes broken up in Tech's 4-2-5 alignment. The top three returning linebackers had just 38.0 tackles, two tackles for loss and a single pass broken up. Cole and Dudley were on the field so much that it is difficult to know how good this year's presumptive starters are -- junior Rufus Porter was a high three-star recruit and had two tackles for loss but was only the field long enough to wring up 16.5 tackles -- but it is also difficult to imagine that they will be as strong.
If big-play prevention was indeed due to safety play, Tech is in good shape. The top five safeties, all seniors (!), return this fall, including Jamel Johnson (71.0 tackles, two interceptions) and Chad Boyd (58.0 tackles, three tackles for loss, three picks, six passes broken up), who is sitting out this spring with a torn labrum. The secondary's job will still get a little tougher with the loss of a wicked pair of ends, Matt Broha and Christian Lacey. The two combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks. Tech played a rather straight forward bend-don't-break game in 2011, allowing you to complete short passes, tackling well, and absolutely teeing off on you with Broha and Lacey when you fell into passing downs. Their replacements have promise -- I.K. Enemkpali had 7.5 tackles for loss last year, 3.5 against Ole Miss, and Kendrick James is having a nice spring -- but the bar has been set pretty high.
In all, Tech's pass defense was virtually as strong as the run defense. They held Houston to just 3.4 yards per play over the first ten drives of the game, they limited Fresno State's Derek Carr to 5.3 yards per pass attempt, Ole Miss to 4.0, Utah State to 3.9 and New Mexico State to 2.8. They ranked just 91st in passing yards allowed per game, but that just highlights the uselessness of that measure. If teams pass a lot on you, you will allow a lot of yards even if you have a great pass defense. And since Tech shut down the run game well and faced pass-heavy teams like Houston, Hawaii, Southern Miss and Central Arkansas, of course they were going to give up passing yards. That they ranked third in the country on passing downs, i.e. the downs where opponents have to pass, tells you what you need to know. Without Broha and Lacey, not to mention corners Terry Carter and Justin Goodman, we will see if they can count on the pass defense quite as much. With this many seniors playing a role, maybe the dropoff will be minimal.
If the defense avoids a serious dropoff, the schedule sets up beautifully for Louisiana Tech, at least down the stretch. They take on four teams projected 62nd or better, three on the road, to start the season, but in their final seven games they play just one team projected higher than 107th. Plus, they get the presumptive No. 2 team in the WAC, Utah State, at home. With a senior-laden team, it is time to aim high, so we'll set the bar at another conference title and a scalp. If they can take out one of the four solid early teams -- Texas A&M, at Houston, at Illinois, at Virginia -- and win their second straight WAC, that would be a tremendous success, even if they trip up once in conference play.
(The "scalp" aspect of this could be interesting to watch; in terms of covariance, Tech was pretty far on the "Best Against Worst" end, meaning, as a whole, they played their best ball against the worst teams on their schedule. As the bar gets set higher, fans expect better performances against better teams.)
Yes, there are concerns. Yes, Tech lost its biggest 'name' player on offense (Lennon Creer) and potentially its four best players on the defensive front seven.
But they just have so many interesting pieces returning at quarterback (Colby Cameron and Nick Isham), running back (Hunter Lee), receiver (Quinton Patton, Myles White), offensive line (Stephen Warner and six other seniors), defensive tackle (Jon'al White), linebacker (Rufus Porter), and safety (Chad Boyd, Jamel Johnson). For the time being, they are still a WAC team, and a glance down the roster suggest they have higher upside, and fewer holes, than anybody else in the conference, even fellow up-and-comers Utah State and San Jose State.
I am pretty clearly all-in on Tech this year, to the point that I gave them a courtesy spot in my 2012 Top 25 back in January. Derek Dooley and Sonny Dykes have combined to create a deep, athletic, exciting roster in Ruston, and an incredibly senior-laden squad should be able to make quite a bit of noise this fall. And depending on how the realignment dominoes fall, this, in turn, could set them up nicely in the future.