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Louisiana Tech was held back by 1-point losses in 2017. Can Skip Holtz scrounge up a few more points?

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The Bulldogs are the C-USA West’s steadiest entity and won’t need that many bounces to win a third division title in five years.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Texas El Paso Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

I really thought 2017 might be Louisiana Tech’s year. Conference USA was in a little bit of flux, and after three straight years of coming up just short in the conference title race, the bridesmaid had a chance to become the bride.

The time for Holtz and Tech to pounce is now. WKU should still be strong but has a potential reset with a new head coach. MTSU might have the best mid-major one-two punch in the country but has defensive questions. Southern Miss is as volatile as ever. ODU might not have a quarterback. UTSA hasn’t completely risen yet. FAU and FIU are just starting out. Marshall is attempting a rebound.

Conference USA is there for the taking. Can Tech take it?

The answer, of course, was no. FAU rolled to the C-USA title, playing like one of the best teams in the country over the last three months of the year. That was pretty hard to predict, but it went beyond the Owls.

Two upstarts and an old friend all zoomed ahead of the Bulldogs in the West division. Southern Miss and the UAB zombie program each went 6-2 in conference play, and Seth Littrell’s North Texas won a series of tight games — 46-43 over UAB, 29-26 over UTSA, 24-23 over Louisiana Tech — to eke out a conference title game bid.

Tech, meanwhile, stagnated. The defense improved after falling apart in 2016, but after three straight years of improvement, the offense reset to merely decent levels. The Bulldogs fell from 59th to 71st in S&P+, suffered three one-point losses, and sank to 7-6 after three consecutive nine-win seasons.

There were high points. Tech got revenge on Western Kentucky for the loss in the 2016 C-USA title game and finished the season beating UTEP, UTSA, and SMU by a combined 113-37. They may have been the second-best team in the conference, behind just FAU, when the season ended.

Despite the 2017 setback, life is pretty good in Ruston. Average home attendance was over 20,000 for the fourth straight season, and Tech has now both attended and won bowls for four straight years as well. The Bulldogs had been to only six bowls in their history pre-Holtz.

Tech is the steadiest team in the C-USA West; we don’t know how North Texas or UAB will handle higher expectations, we don’t know what Southern Miss will be like from week to week, we don’t know how many extra gears Frank Wilson’s UTSA program has, and Rice and UTEP will probably be down for a while.

We know Tech’s going to be pretty good. We’ll just have to wait and see if it’s more than that. The defense returns four of its top five havoc guys, one of whom (cornerback Amik Robertson) was one of the best freshmen in the country last year. The offense brings back its starting quarterback, four of its top five receivers, and two all-conference linemen.

That seems like a pretty good base for sustaining last year’s late-season gains. And Holtz went from signing five three-star players (per the 247Sports Composite) in the 2017 recruiting class to inking 16 in a 2018 class that ranked third in C-USA. That should keep the ball rolling in 2019 and beyond.

Offense

2017 Louisiana Tech offensive radar

Ryan Higgins was one of the country’s most underrated players in 2016; the then-senior threw for 4,617 yards, rushed for 420 more (not including sacks), and commanded an offense that ranked third in raw success rate and 11th in Off. S&P+. That was a difficult act to follow, and J’Mar Smith went through some serious ups and downs trying to follow it.

Smith basically played like a sophomore and first-year starter — up, down, up, down. He posted a passer rating of higher than 140 in three straight games in the first half of the season, then went under 120 in four of the next five. In the last two games of the year, he went 7-for-21 with a pick against UTSA (passer rating: 64.2) and 15-for-23 with three TDs against SMU (187.1). His legs were solid (518 non-sack rushing yards), but his arm came and went.

The high points were impressive, though, and in theory we see more of them when a guy’s starting for the second year. Strangely, Smith struggled quite a bit at home — he had a 114.5 passer rating in Ruston and a 143.5 rating outside of Ruston — and that seems strange enough to be unsustainable.

NCAA Football: Frisco Bowl-Louisiana Tech vs Southern Methodist
J’Mar Smith
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Smith gets his most important weapons back. You throw to a lot of guys in third-year offensive coordinator Todd Fitch’s offense, and five of the nine players targeted more than 10 times last year are gone, but the right ones return.

  • Senior Teddy Veal was an efficient No. 1, a steady possession man who caught 62 percent of his passes and put up more than 75 receiving yards seven times.
  • Rhashid Bonnette should maybe the No. 1 man himself. The 6’0 junior caught more than three balls in a game just four times but finished the year averaging 17.6 yards per catch with both the highest marginal efficiency and marginal explosiveness numbers on the team.
  • Adrian Hardy, a former star recruit, held his own in his redshirt freshman season, finishing with 251 yards and decent efficiency numbers despite missing one-third of the season.

From there, it’s unclear. Senior Kam McKnight and sophomores like Cee Jay Powell, George Scott, and Zach Cousar are all back, but there could be room for a star freshman in the equation. Maureese Wren, for instance, was nearly a four-star prospect.

Fitch changed up his tendencies quite a bit to account for Smith’s strengths and weaknesses. The Bulldogs were one of the throwingest teams in the country in 2016 but ended up pretty balanced in 2017, throwing 60.4 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60) and 31.6 percent on passing downs (national average: 35.3). That might skew more toward the pass again this fall, both because Smith might be ready to do more in that regard and because the run game has some unknowns.

In Boston Scott and Jarred Craft, Tech must replace 1,558 yards of production (1,813 if you include receiving yards). They were a stabilizing force next to Smith in the backfield. Junior back Jaqwis Dancy has loads of potential (he averaged 6.7 yards per carry over 39 carries), but he’ll probably need a battery mate, and I’m not sure who that is. Seniors Israel Tucker and Quanta Moore combined for nine carries in 2017, and freshman Elijah Hines is, well, a freshman.

Whoever’s carrying the ball, though, will be doing so behind a good line. Tech ranked 22nd in Adj. Line Yards last year and thrived at both converting short yardage and avoiding negative plays. Scott and Craft helped with those numbers, obviously, but with seven linemen having combined for 100 career starts and the return of two all-conference guards (O’Shea Dugas and Ethan Reed), the line is the least of Tech’s concerns.

Defense

2017 Louisiana Tech defensive radar

Blake Baker’s first two years succeeding Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator were rough. Tech fell from 35th to 80th in Def. S&P+ in 2015, then plummeted to 113th the year after. The Bulldogs gave up 38 or more points in four of five losses, and just one more stop per game could have meant 11 wins or so.

In 2017, with the offense going from great to average, the defense rose to the occasion a bit more. Tech still allowed 34 or more points in three losses but also held opponents to 24 or fewer in nine games and bounced back to 73rd in Def. S&P+.

This improvement came mostly because of big-play prevention.

2017 Louisiana Tech defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Tech allowed just 1.8 plays per game of 30-plus yards, 40th in the country and pretty good in the offense-friendly C-USA. The Bulldogs were terribly inefficient — 107th in success rate allowed, 124th in rushing success rate — but they at least made you sustain drives to score points.

This general stability was pretty impressive considering the number of injuries that beset the unit. If you count anyone averaging at least about 0.75 tackles per game as a regular (and I do), then regulars missed more than 40 games last year. The secondary was hit particularly hard but continued to do a solid job of big-play prevention.

Thanks to the aforementioned injuries, Tech ended up with 10 defensive backs making at least 10 tackles, and six of them return, as does corner Ephraim Kitchen, who missed the whole year. Toss in a wealth of three-star youngsters (one sophomore, three redshirt freshmen, four true freshmen), and you’ve likely got one of the deepest secondaries in the conference.

Robertson’s the key, though. The former star recruit was thrown into the fire as a true freshman and not only avoided injury (unlike most of his peers) but also combined 7.5 TFLs with 11 passes defensed. Only six other FBS defenders pulled off that combination — a murderer’s row of Iowa’s Josey Jewell, USC’s Uchenna Nwosu, Texas’ DeShon Elliott, Michigan’s Khaleke Hudson, Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards, and Texas A&M’s Tyrel Dodson — and none of them were freshmen.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech
Amik Robertson (21)
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

If the secondary can keep the same first-stringers on the field (Robertson in particular), the pass defense should be fine. The run defense could use some help, though, and Holtz seemed to understand this; he brought in three JUCO linebackers, including former Missouri signee Trey Baldwin, to bring some disruption to the table. He didn’t bring in as much help for the line, which struggled but does return eight juniors and seniors who made at least 7.5 tackles.

Special Teams

Tech’s special teams unit was strangely all-or-nothing last year. Place-kicker Jonathan Barnes was excellent, and the kick return tandem of Scott and Dancy was quite efficient. But punting was a massive issue — Tech didn’t allow many returns but also averaged barely 38 yards per kick — and Veal was incredibly all-or-nothing in punt returns.

Barnes and Scott are gone, and the shaky parts return. Not the best combination, though Dancey could be excellent in the return game is he is still used in that way. (Sometimes when you move up to starting RB, you give up your return spot.)

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at South Alabama 109 6.6 65%
8-Sep Southern U. NR 31.8 97%
22-Sep at LSU 16 -16.9 16%
29-Sep at North Texas 86 0.7 52%
6-Oct UAB 91 7.1 66%
13-Oct at UTSA 104 5.4 62%
20-Oct UTEP 130 22.4 90%
27-Oct at Florida Atlantic 31 -11.6 25%
3-Nov at Mississippi State 14 -18.6 14%
10-Nov Rice 128 18.3 86%
17-Nov at Southern Miss 94 3.1 57%
24-Nov Western Kentucky 90 6.7 65%
Projected S&P+ Rk 70
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 64 / 74
Projected wins 7.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.5 (75)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 86 / 83
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 2.7
2017 TO Luck/Game +4.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (73%, 78%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.0 (0.0)

I selfishly like it when successful coaches remain in mid-major jobs, so I love that Holtz entering year six in Ruston. Part of that is probably because he hasn’t experienced the total breakthrough I mourned at the top, but this marriage is working out well for both parties. Holtz’s Bulldogs rank in the top 30 nationally in returning production and just signed an excellent recruiting class. Present and future both look solid.

S&P+ is basically neutral on Tech this year, projecting almost exactly the same performance as last year — seven wins and a ranking around 70th. That would almost certainly keep him in Ruston for longer, but it might feel a little bit underwhelming considering what’s returning.

Better defensive health and further maturation from Smith could lead to something a lot better than seven wins. While trips to Mississippi State, LSU, and FAU should all be losses, S&P+ projects Tech as at least a slight favorite in the other nine games. But trips to North Texas, Southern Miss, and UTSA are relative tossups.

In other words, expect a ton of close games, just like last year. If Tech is just better enough to win those games, unlike last year, a third division title in five years could be in the making.

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