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1. I think I was wrong
I don't have a good feeling about this hire, in other words. But I didn't have a good feeling about Vanderbilt hiring James Franklin either. And maybe I'm overthinking this entirely because of the Petersen hire. Maybe Tech will get the best of both worlds: the high-octane offense mixed with better defensive discipline and overall quality. But I'll just go ahead and call myself a skeptic with this one.
I didn't love the Skip Holtz hire. My general thinking was Sonny Dykes had found something that works well in Ruston --- air raid offense, swarming secondary -- and straying from that recipe by going with a guy more defensive by nature (with a stolid offensive history) seemed misguided. Tech had won 17 games in two years, and while the Bulldogs were guaranteed to step backwards in 2013 after losing a ton of important personnel, I didn't love the idea of Holtz being the one to guide them back.
Granted, it's only been three seasons, and the first one was far more of a step backwards than I even anticipated (Tech ranked 123rd in S&P+ in 2013, reaching five wins only because of a paper-thin schedule). And granted, the last two seasons haven't been remarkably stable -- 2014's team was powered by excellent, aggressive defense, and 2015's team took a step forward offensively and two steps backwards defensively. Still, over the last two years Holtz has retained a wide-open offense while, at worst, matching Dykes' defensive numbers. And whereas Dykes won 17 games in 2011-12, Holtz won 18 in 2014-15.
At worst, Holtz has proven himself as solid a hire as Dykes. And in 2016, with record-setting running back (and Dykes signee) Kenneth Dixon gone, this officially becomes Holtz's program.
I guess that means Holtz still has time to fail. Tech loses a lot of last year's production, and Holtz has already had to make so many coordinator hires that an iffy one could derail whatever progress Tech has sustained.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz left after one year (2014) in Ruston, and Holtz promoted linebackers coach Blake Baker to that position; a much thinner defensive unit fell from 24th to 76th in Def. S&P+. And because of another go-round of turnover, we might not begin to find out how much of that regression was because of personnel and experience, and how much was because of the person leading the D.
Now the offense gets a makeover, too. Dixon and quarterback Jeff Driskel (who threw for 4,000 yards in 2015 after transferring from Florida) are both gone, and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, who built a spread-offense bridge from the Dykes era to the Holtz era, is now at ECU.
In response, Holtz brought in veteran Todd Fitch to run the offense. Fitch is a 30-year coaching veteran who ran Holtz's USF offenses (the stolid ones referenced above). In seven seasons as an FBS offensive coordinator, he's been at the helm of one top-40 offense (2007 ECU) and five ranked between 50th and 90th. In 2015, his Boston College offense was one of the worst in the country (124th in Off. S&P+), and while it would be unfair to judge him on one year, it's fair to worry.
2015 Schedule & Results
|Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 57 | Final S&P+ Rk: 54|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|10-Sep||at Western Kentucky||15||38-41||L||51%||37%||+0.5||-4.0|
|19-Sep||at Kansas State||81||33-39||L||22%||27%||+5.8||+3.0|
|17-Oct||at Mississippi State||16||20-45||L||21%||8%||-25.0||-11.5|
|19-Dec||vs. Arkansas State||71||47-28||W||86%||99%||+13.7||+17.0|
|Points Per Game||37.5||19||26.8||62|
2. Rock bottom, then rebound
This is an optimist-vs.-pessimist team.
The optimist sees a loaded skill position corps, a former blue-chip quarterback, a more stable offensive line, a potential All-American tackle (seriously, Vernon Butler is a bad man), and one of the best secondaries in the country, at either the power-conference or mid-major level.
The pessimist sees a team that surged primarily because of a defense that now must replace a stud coordinator and most of its front seven, not to mention an offense that must replace its quarterback and an offensive line that might not be talented enough to gel.
I leaned in both directions in last year's Tech preview. It was pretty easy to see how the Bulldogs might sustain most of 2014's gains, and it was pretty easy to see things falling apart. The projections ended up being almost spot-on, but both the optimist and pessimist had their instincts proven right to some degree.
Tech showed immense upside and pretty low downside, and once the Bulldogs his a peak, a valley was soon to follow. They were great against Southern U., then regressed twice. They were solid against UL-Lafayette, then regressed twice. They were tremendous in a 29-point destruction of a decent MTSU team, then they regressed four times in row, bottoming out with an egregious home loss to Southern Miss (which cost them a division title). And then they were great again in the New Orleans Bowl.
It was a roller coaster of a season. Tech played four games at the 86th percentile or higher and three at the 22nd or lower. Still, a No. 54 finish and another nine wins sustained the gains of the 2014 campaign.
Now comes an even bigger test. Tech returns a sneaky-low amount of last year's production -- 39 percent overall, fourth-lowest in FBS -- and the quality of Holtz's recruiting will tell us how far the Bulldogs fall, if at all.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||48.1%||13||Succ. Rt. +||107.0||41|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||31.2||99||Def. FP+||30.5||85|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||5.0||24||Redzone S&P+||103.2||61|
|Q1 Rk||14||1st Down Rk||35|
|Q2 Rk||34||2nd Down Rk||26|
|Q3 Rk||74||3rd Down Rk||64|
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Ryan Higgins||6'2, 212||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8088||15||25||138||1||3||60.0%||1||3.8%||5.0|
|Price Wilson||6'1, 223||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8038|
|J'mar Smith||6'1, 223||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8463|
|Jon Randall Belton||6'3, 203||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8537|
|Jack Abraham||6'0, 197||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8312|
3. Got a QB?
Fitch's 2015 Boston College offense was never going to be fantastic, but it was mortally wounded by the QB position. Sophomore quarterback Darius Wade was showing at least a little bit of promise before he was lost for the season to injury in the third week. And from then on, one freshman after another made it to the top of the depth chart and failed. Three first-year guys combined to complete 44 percent of their passes, and while the run game showed a little bit of promise, it didn't matter.
Granted, it would only take an injury or two to render away any semblance of experience Tech has, but in theory, the Bulldogs' quarterback situation is better than what Fitch was working with in Massachusetts.
Ryan Higgins has been the runner-up to a transfer in each of the last two years. First, Cody Sokol overtook him for the starting job in 2014, then Driskel did the same last year. Higgins saw significant playing time in 2013, when he and a young two-deep were overmatched; he completed 59 percent of his passes but threw 10 interceptions in a four-game stretch. Over the last two years, he's completed 21 of 35 passes, mostly in mop-up duty.
We'll see what Fitch wants from the QB position, but Higgins showed at least a little bit of mobility in 2013. But after the 2015 experience at BC, Fitch might just prefer to wrap his QB in bubble wrap and have him never leave the pocket.
[Update: Higgins will not start the team's season opener against Arkansas as punishment for his DWI arrest.]
|Jarred Craft||RB||6'0, 212||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793||58||230||1||4.0||2.4||36.2%||0||0|
|Boston Scott||RB||5'6, 190||Jr.||NR||NR||34||275||0||8.1||9.0||47.1%||0||0|
|Ryan Higgins||QB||6'2, 212||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8088||8||35||0||4.4||2.8||37.5%||0||0|
|Carlos Henderson||WR||5'11, 194||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8213||5||54||0||10.8||5.4||80.0%||1||1|
|Jaqwis Dancy||RB||5'11, 190||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8162|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Trent Taylor||WR||5'8, 180||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8007||131||99||1282||75.6%||28.3%||9.8||64.1%||61.8%||1.49|
|Carlos Henderson||WR||5'11, 194||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8213||65||36||774||55.4%||14.0%||11.9||67.7%||46.2%||2.36|
|Marcus Gaines||WR||5'6, 158||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7819||38||17||315||44.7%||8.2%||8.3||68.4%||42.1%||1.89|
|Kameron McKnight||WR||6'2, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8432||38||22||268||57.9%||8.2%||7.1||68.4%||52.6%||1.13|
|Marlon Watts||WR||6'2, 187||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652||27||16||144||59.3%||5.8%||5.3||48.1%||44.4%||1.05|
|Jarred Craft||RB||6'0, 212||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793||11||9||60||81.8%||2.4%||5.5||72.7%||36.4%||1.23|
|Conner Smith||WR||6'3, 216||Sr.||NR||NR||5||4||45||80.0%||1.1%||9.0||80.0%||60.0%||1.65|
|Grant Childress||WR||6'0, 188||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7300||4||3||21||75.0%||0.9%||5.3||100.0%||50.0%||0.88|
|DeJuawn Oliver||WR||5'11, 199||Sr.||NR||NR||2||1||37||50.0%||0.4%||18.5||50.0%||50.0%||3.95|
|Alex Woodall||TE||6'3, 240||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8256||2||0||0||0.0%||0.4%||0.0||100.0%||0.0%||0.00|
|Rhashid Bonnette||WR||6'0, 157||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8479|
|Javonte Woodard||WR||6'0, 189||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8158|
|Zach Cousar||TE||6'4, 218||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8170|
4. Life without your rock
In four seasons, Kenneth Dixon was Louisiana Tech's everything. He averaged 200 carries for 1,120 yards and 22 catches for 243 yards each year. He scored 87 touchdowns (despite scoring only five during the miserable 2013 season), even holding the FBS career touchdowns record for a millisecond until it was taken back by Navy's Keenan Reynolds. Dixon was steady and constantly serviceable, reasonably efficient and all sorts of explosive.
Losing Dixon means losing both your best running back and No. 4 receiver. The receiving corps has quite a few exciting weapons, but running back could be an issue. Junior Jarred Craft held down the backup role for much of the year, but didn't do much with it. But thanks in part to a Craft injury, tiny, explosive walk-on Boston Scott got a look and made the most of it. He rushed for 106 yards in just four carries against Arkansas State and showed spectacular explosiveness in minimal opportunities.
From a size perspective, Craft is Tech's most likely feature back, but Scott could be a wonderful change of pace, and rising sophomore Jaqwis Dancy brings a pretty solid recruiting profile to the table. There is potential here, but you're going from known quantities to unknowns.
There are fewer worries in the receiving corps. Losing Dixon and big-play man Paul Turner hurts, but if the running game is decent and there's a QB on the roster capable of throwing the ball semi-accurately, the receivers should do their jobs with aplomb. Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson combined for 135 catches and a massive 10.5 yards per target, and reserves like Marcus Gaines and Kameron McKnight flashed ability as well. Holtz has recruited well at the receiver position. Now we'll find out how he's done at running back.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Jens Danielsen||RT||11||24||2015 2nd All-CUSA|
|Darrell Brown||LT||6'4, 315||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||13||22||2015 2nd All-CUSA|
|David Mahaffey||C||6'4, 307||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8222||13||16|
|O'Shea Dugas||LG||6'5, 330||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8381||12||12|
|Joseph Brunson||C||6'4, 314||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7923||0||8|
|Shane Carpenter||RT||6'6, 300||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7726||2||2|
|Derek Edinburgh, Jr.||LT||6'8, 325||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8992||0||0|
|Clayton Landry||LG||6'5, 298||Sr.||NR||NR||0||0|
|Deontae McCrady||RG||6'3, 307||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7744||0||0|
|Michael Rodriguez||OL||6'6, 275||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826||0||0|
|Cam Manning||OL||6'2, 299||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8006||0||0|
|DeVante Lovett||OL||6'6, 276||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8144|
|Joshua Outlaw||OL||6'4, 310||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000|
|Taylor Fondal||OL||6'1, 309||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8290|
5. Three starters gone, four starters back
Shifts on the offensive line two-deep over the previous couple of seasons have created a solid base of experience. Tech must replace two 2015 starters and a 2014 starter, but the Bulldogs still bring back four guys who have combined for 58 starts and a fifth (Shane Carpenter) who got his feet wet with two starts in 2015.
Between these players, former LSU tackle Derek Edinburgh, Jr., and a couple of recent three-star signees, it appears the depth here is strong. But Tech ranked just 101st in Adj. Line Yards even while blocking for Dixon. The Bulldog front will need to raise its game a bit with a new cast of characters at running back.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||40.3%||60||Succ. Rt. +||101.8||60|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.1||87||Off. FP+||29.3||86|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.2||46||Redzone S&P+||98.7||78|
|Q1 Rk||90||1st Down Rk||67|
|Q2 Rk||35||2nd Down Rk||61|
|Q3 Rk||67||3rd Down Rk||38|
6. Run defense sank a little, pass defense sank a lot
The Tech defense was well-rounded and aggressive as hell in 2014, but there was no way to avoid a drop-off last fall. Not only was there a coordinator change, but the Bulldogs were also tasked with replacing five of their top seven linemen (including ace pass rusher Houston Bates) and their top three linebackers, who had combined for 24.5 tackles for loss and 16 passes defensed. That's a lot of production to lose at once.
The secondary was experienced, though. It stood to reason that unless the pass rush completely collapsed, the pass defense should remain sound.
The pass rush fell from 24th in Adj. Sack Rate to 80th. And while the secondary still made its share of plays, so did opponents. Tech fell from 22nd in Passing S&P+ to 86th, and it negated the impact of a surprisingly impressive run D. The Bulldogs stopped about one-quarter of rushes at or behind the line and ranked a healthy 36th in Rushing S&P+, but opponents leaned heavily on the pass to move the ball. The result: Tech fell 52 spots in Def. S&P+, from 24th to 76th.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jaylon Ferguson||DE||6'5, 256||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8111||12||28.5||4.0%||15.0||6.0||0||1||2||0|
|Aaron Brown||DT||6'1, 270||Sr.||NR||NR||11||19.5||2.7%||4.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Deldrick Canty||DE||6'2, 266||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8300||11||15.5||2.2%||4.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Matthew Ydarraga||DE||6'3, 238||So.||NR||NR||6||6.5||0.9%||2.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Immanuel Turner||DE||6'3, 250||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7733||7||4.5||0.6%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jordan Bradford||DT||6'2, 280||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8015||10||4.5||0.6%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Courtney Wallace||DT||6'2, 336||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8377||13||3.5||0.5%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Hakim Gray||DT||6'3, 303||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8318|
|Cedric Johnson||DT||6'2, 304||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8522|
|La'Dante Davenport||DT||6'3, 293||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7994|
|Keonatye Garner||DT||6'4, 265||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000|
|Kalan Ritchie||DE||6'6, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8128|
|Willie Baker||DE||6'2, 238||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8516|
|Ka'Derrion Mason||DT||6'3, 280||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8467|
7. Set for years up front
Tech must once again replace all three starting linebackers in 2016, but at the least, the line appears stocked with exciting prospects. The pass rush regressed, but Jaylon Ferguson still flashed potential with 15 tackles for loss and six sacks as a freshman. And while two of the top three tackles are gone (including outstanding Vernon Butler), Holtz and Blake Baker got a jump on this potential issue by giving four freshman reserves some playing time.
Senior Aaron Brown returns, and sophomores Jordan Bradford and Courtney Wallace each hinted at some upside in their 2015 opportunities. Throw in big reserves Hakim Gray and Cedric Johnson (each former three-star recruits), JUCO transfer Keonatye Garner, redshirt freshman La'Dante Davenport, and incoming three-star freshman Ka'Derrion Mason, and it feels like there's enough quantity here to produce likely quality. There are obvious depth questions at linebacker, but I like the options up front.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Lloyd Grogan||LB||6'1, 212||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8470||11||24.5||3.4%||0.5||0.0||1||3||0||0|
|Russell Farris||LB||5'11, 217||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7900||13||19.0||2.6%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Durman||LB||6'2, 226||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7904||9||9.0||1.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dae'Von Washington||LB||5'10, 220||So.||NR||NR||9||8.5||1.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Frasier Hogan||LB||5'10, 216||Jr.||NR||NR||11||6.5||0.9%||1.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Michael Mims||LB||5'11, 211||Jr.||NR||NR||4||5.5||0.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Quanta Moore||LB||6'1, 227||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7693|
|Collin Scott||LB||6'0, 228||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8007|
|Dante Williams||LB||6'1, 216||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
|Devin Hamilton||LB||5'11, 201||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8241|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Xavier Woods||S||5'11, 203||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8241||13||46.5||6.5%||7.5||0||3||3||2||0|
|Secdrick Cooper||S||6'0, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7444||13||17.5||2.4%||1.5||0.5||0||2||0||0|
|Aaron Roberson||CB||5'9, 196||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8108||7||13.0||1.8%||0||0||1||1||0||0|
|Trey Spencer||CB||5'11, 171||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7960||10||8.0||1.1%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Elliot Blankenship||DB||6'0, 202||Jr.||NR||NR||7||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Theron Williams||S||5'10, 186||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7886||9||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darryl Lewis||DB||5'11, 193||So.||NR||NR||4||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Ephraim Kitchen||CB||5'10, 170||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8305||2||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Roland Dunn||CB||5'10, 174||Jr.||NR||NR||8||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|James Jackson||S||5'11, 205||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059|
|DB||6'0, 175||So.||2 stars (5.4)||NR|
|DB||5'11, 185||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8634|
|DaMarion King||DB||5'11, 198||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7844|
|David Beasley||DB||6'2, 185||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8144|
|L'Jarius Sneed||DB||6'1, 180||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8056|
8. Major questions at corner
Defensive tackle is one potential issue that Holtz is addressing with quantity; cornerback is another. Despite regression in pass defense, corners Bryson Abraham and Adairius Barnes were still crazy-active, combining for four interceptions and 27 break-ups. Their absence raises major experience questions, but sophomores Aaron Roberson, Trey Spencer, Darryl Lewis, and Ephraim Kitchen all saw playing time as freshmen. Plus Holtz brought in two transfers (including Arizona State's Ronald Lewis), JUCO DaMarion King, and two three-star freshmen (David Beasley, L'Jarius Sneed).
If the corner position is stable, safety should be fine. Losing Kentrell Brice hurts, but senior Xavier Woods was even more active than Brice, and junior Secdrick Cooper saw quite a bit of action last year.
Though Woods is a senior, almost all of the exciting pieces of this defense are sophomores and juniors. That could mean a little bit more transition time in 2016 before the 2017 defense takes a nice step forward. Still, there is a number of options in positions of need, and if some new starters turn potential into production, there's hope for the 2016 defense.
|Gerald Shouse||6'1, 199||Sr.||51||40.9||2||17||22||76.5%|
|Logan McPherson||5'10, 178||Sr.||4||33.3||0||0||1||25.0%|
|Jonathan Barnes||5'9, 168||Jr.||88||59.4||22||5||25.0%|
|Jonathan Barnes||5'9, 168||Jr.||60-60||16-18||88.9%||6-8||75.0%|
|Carlos Henderson||KR||5'11, 194||Jr.||21||22.0||0|
|Jaqwis Dancy||KR||5'11, 190||So.||17||17.4||0|
|Trent Taylor||PR||5'8, 180||Sr.||13||6.4||0|
|Special Teams S&P+||35|
|Field Goal Efficiency||25|
|Punt Return Success Rate||40|
|Kick Return Success Rate||87|
|Punt Success Rate||38|
|Kickoff Success Rate||123|
9. Few questions in special teams
Quarterback, running back, defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback. Louisiana Tech has questions to answer in a lot of units. But special teams should remain a strength, and that can do the Bulldogs some favors in terms of field position and finishing drives. Jonathan Barnes is a potentially excelelnt place-kicker, Gerald Shouse's punts are high and relatively long, Trent Taylor is a consistent punt returner, and Carlos Henderson is a potentially explosive kick returner.
Kickoff coverage was an issue, but this was an otherwise solid unit and should be again.
2016 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|17-Sep||at Texas Tech||43||-12.5||23%|
|24-Sep||at Middle Tennessee||90||-1.8||46%|
|22-Oct||at Florida International||113||6.6||65%|
|5-Nov||at North Texas||128||11.9||75%|
|26-Nov||at Southern Miss||72||-6.8||35%|
|Projected wins: 7.0|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||2.3% (55)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||84 / 81|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||1 / 3.7|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||-1.0|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||39% (42%, 37%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||9.3 (-0.3)|
10. Survive, then advance
With new starters in the offensive and defensive backfields and front seven, it's easy to see two different Louisiana Tech teams taking the field in 2016 -- an inexperienced, not-quite-gelled team that takes its lumps against Arkansas and Texas Tech (and maybe MTSU) early, and a more seasoned squad that rolls through the weak portion of its Conference USA schedule late. After three road games against projected top-90 teams in September, Tech faces six opponents projected 113th or worse in a seven-game span in October and November.
The key to this transition year will be how quickly the new pieces gel. Expect either a 1-3 or 2-2 start, but if the Bulldog two-deep is coagulating reasonably well, Tech could finish with six or seven wins in its last eight games. If confidence or depth issues emerge, however, then a trip to FIU becomes quite losable, and a 5-7 or 6-6 finish ends up on the table.
Skip Holtz has already done a better job in Ruston than I anticipated, but he's got a challenge on his hands in 2016. However the two-deep ends up taking shape, most of it will return in 2017, and like Marshall, the Bulldogs could experience a nice breakthrough. But depending on whether there are a few growing pains or a lot, 2016 might be more transition year than statement year.