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Is Louisiana Tech football done being overlooked in 2017?

Skip Holtz’s Bulldogs have been the bridesmaids, and now plenty of other programs are getting more attention.

NCAA Football: Armed Forces Bowl-Louisiana Tech vs Navy Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

This preview was originally published on March 13 and has since been updated.

Back when I was in junior high, I was in one of those Saturday bowling leagues in my small Oklahoma hometown. I wasn’t amazing, but I was good enough to finish second overall, post the second-best single-game high, and roll the second-highest number of strikes.

My team finished second.

In all, including teams, newcomers, etc., probably about 10 or 12 kids got trophies. I did not get one, as I didn’t finish first in any one category.

I like to pretend I’ve moved on from this disappointment. It would be embarrassing to admit that I’m still a little bit miffed.

I’m not going to say Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz feels my bowling runner-up’s pain, but one has to figure he’s tired of waiting his turn.

In 2014, after a 4-8 debut in Ruston, he and his Bulldogs stormed to nine wins and a C-USA West title. Tech came three points short of a dominant Marshall and settled for a 17-point thwacking of Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

In 2015, the Bulldogs' comeback got overpowered by an even bigger comeback when Southern Miss surged to nine wins, and with a knockout in Ruston on Thanksgiving weekend, stole the West title. Tech settled for a 19-point win over Arkansas State in the New Orleans Bowl.

In 2016, the Bulldogs began 1-3 but ripped off seven straight wins to take the division, beating a fantastic Western Kentucky in the process. But they lost at WKU in the C-USA title game and had to settle for a thrilling, 48-45 win over Navy in the Armed Forces Bowl.

WKU's Jeff Brohm got hired away by Purdue, and Southern Miss' Todd Monken left for the NFL. FAU and FIU made headlines by hiring headliners Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis to run their moribund programs. Frank Wilson is making waves at UTSA.

This conference is making impressive hires and grabbing headlines. Meanwhile, Holtz is waiting his turn in the C-USA spotlight despite 27 wins, three bowl titles, and two division titles in three years.

Of course, it would help if he could get both sides of the ball fully functioning at once. The offense has been on a steady ascent, moving from 46th in Off. S&P+ in 2014 to 30th in 2015 and 11th in 2016. Meanwhile, the defense has plummeted. From its No. 35 peak in 2014, it fell to 80th, then 113th.

The offense doesn’t have much more room to rise, and the defense doesn’t have much more room to fall. Which unit regresses (or progresses) to the mean more in 2017?

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?


2016 in review

2016 Louisiana Tech statistical profile.

Louisiana Tech was a well-rounded, dominant force for about half the season and a walking shootout for the other half. That made for plenty of crazy games but also a feeling of missed opportunity.

  • First four games (1-3) — Avg. score: LT 38, Opp 36 | Avg. percentile performance: 42% (~top 75) | Yards per play: LT 7.2, Opp 6.1
  • Next seven games (7-0) — Avg. score: LT 50, Opp 27 | Avg. percentile performance: 74% (~top 35) | Yards per play: LT 8.4, Opp 5.0
  • Last three games (1-2) — Avg. score: Opp 47, LT 39 | Avg. percentile performance: 28% (~top 90) | Yards per play: Opp 7.3, LT 6.1

The national average for yards per play hovered in the 5.8 range, but in only two games did Tech average under 6.4. This was a dynamic, ridiculous, consistent offense that had a high cruising altitude and a stratospheric peak.

The problem was that the defense was more like a supernova. It began with an excellent performance against Arkansas and manhandled middling C-USA offenses. But it also got lit up by any passing game with a pulse. Texas Tech averaged 8.4 yards per play and scored 59 points. MTSU: 7 yards per play and 38 points. WKU in two games: 7.5 yards per play and 110 points.

Despite a decent pass rush and a secondary loaded with upperclassmen, the Tech pass defense was woefully inefficient, and the defense bent too much to be considered a bend-don’t-break unit. And it distracted us from how incredible this offense was.

The offense now replaces a 4,600-yard passer and two NFL-caliber receivers.


Offense

Louisiana Tech offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

It’s hard to find something Louisiana Tech’s offense wasn’t really damn good at, so let’s start with this: What did Southern Miss and Arkansas do? The Golden Eagles and Razorbacks were the only two defenses to even marginally control the attack. What stood out about those two?

For Arkansas, the answer was easy: avoid Ryan Higgins. Louisiana Tech’s quarterback was arrested on charges of DWI and speeding in early August, and redshirt freshman J’Mar Smith got his first career start in Fayetteville. He wasn’t awful; he threw a pick and took three sacks. But he also completed 19 of 31 passes for 212 yards and rushed six times for 30 yards.

Once Higgins returned the next week, the offense was almost untouchable. But Southern Miss was able to do the other thing that could slow the Bulldogs down: stop the run. The Tech run game was far more efficient than explosive, though that went for the offense as a whole.

Louisiana Tech offensive efficiency and explosiveness

Southern Miss held Jarred Craft and Boston Scott to 23 yards on 12 carries, rendering Tech one-dimensional and forcing occasional mistakes from Higgins. He threw for 246 yards but completed three passes to Golden Eagle defenders. USM took a 39-17 lead and cruised.

That only two of 14 opponents could slow Tech down was impressive. But the way those two did it has to be a little disconcerting heading into 2017.

Higgins and star receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson (combined: 306 targets, 219 catches, 3,354 yards, and 31 touchdowns — yes, this is just from last year, not their entire careers) were absurdly productive, and now they’re gone. That puts a lot of pressure on both Smith and the run game.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Southern Mississippi
Jarred Craft
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, if there’s one thing Holtz and Tech have proved, it’s that they can handle turnover on offense. Following 2014’s breakthrough, the Bulldogs had to replace 3,400-yard passer Cody Sokol and an all-conference tackle. They improved.

Following 2015, they had to replace quarterback Jeff Driskel, all-world playmaker Kenneth Dixon, and coordinator Tony Petersen. They improved.

So who’s next, then? Even if there’s a step backward in 2017, we should probably assume that second-year coordinator Todd Fitch will have some toys. Who will that be?

  • J’Mar Smith wasn’t asked to do much after the season opener, but he did complete 61 percent of his passes in an SEC stadium in his debut, and he is a former star recruit. He might be ready for big-time play. And if he is, that’s great news. After three straight years of starting a senior quarterback, Smith could provide some continuity if he sticks. [Update: He better be, because backups Price Wilson and Jack Abraham have since transferred.]
  • Boston Scott. I said the Tech game was grounded in efficiency, but that’s senior Craft’s doing. The 213-pounder averaged 5.6 yards per carry but didn’t bring much efficiency. Scott, on the other hand, is electric. Over the last two seasons, the 5’6 mighty mite has rushed 104 times for 790 yards. We don’t know how much of a load he can carry, but the absence of Taylor and Henderson might force Fitch to get creative in getting him the ball more while still feeding Craft.
  • Teddy Veal and Adrian Hardy. Veal, a former Tulane star recruit from Bridge City (La.), transferred when Curtis Johnson was fired. He caught 88 passes and scored six times in two years for an otherwise destitute Tulane offense, and in terms of athleticism, he’s got all you’re looking for. Hardy signed with Oklahoma and is one of the taller players in an otherwise short-but-speedy receiving corps. Star freshman Jaiden Cole might merit a mention, too.
  • Alfred Smith, Kam McKnight, and Rhashid Bonnette. This trio of 2016 backups produced when given the opportunity. They combined for 90 targets, 53 catches, 696 yards, and four touchdowns, and they’re all former mid-three-star recruits. At least one will likely produce breakout numbers.
  • Jaqwis Dancy. Actually, I have no idea what Dancy might contribute this year, but the three-star sophomore kicked cancer’s ass this offseason, and I felt that was worth mentioning.

It’s hard to worry about the skill positions, both because of the obvious potential and because of Louisiana Tech’s recent history. But if something does slow the Bulldogs down more than expected, it might be the line. Two starters return, including mammoth all-conference guard O’Shea Dugas, but two more all-conference guys (tackle Darrell Brown, center Joseph Brunson) are gone.

Of all the names I just mentioned, by the way, only Craft and Scott are seniors. The 2017 offense might take a step back; the 2018 offense should be ridiculous.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Tulane
Teddy Veal
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Louisiana Tech defensive radar

The Tech offense has seamlessly replaced star quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and coaches with equally functional pieces. The defense hasn’t quite had that same luxury. In 2014, new coordinator Manny Diaz inherited an experienced, hungry front seven and utilized it perfectly. Tech improved 74 spots in Def. S&P+ in a single season and exploded after an iffy September.

A 2015 unit that had to replace Diaz, the top three linebackers, and four of the top six linemen struggled. And in 2016, Tech double-dipped. The top two linemen, top three linebackers, and three of four defensive backs again had to be replaced, and the new batch wasn’t ready.

The run defense was decent. Tech was a bit too flexible near the line but gave up only 13 rushes of 20-plus yards (19th in FBS).

The pass defense bombed. The Bulldogs allowed a 65 percent completion rate, and while you can get by with inefficiency if you’re preventing big plays, Tech allowed 58 passes of 20-plus yards; only three teams allowed more.

Granted, the linebacking corps has to reload, having lost three of last year’s top four. But the Bulldog defense boasts more continuity than it has since 2014, and there are experienced playmakers at every level. These playmakers were all a part of last year’s defense, but continuity and experience can be quite the panacea.

As always seems to be the case, Tech is loaded at end. Jaylon Ferguson is maybe the conference’s best pass rusher; he had 14.5 sacks last year and forced four fumbles, and among senior Deldrick Canty, sophomore Eric Kendzior, and redshirt freshman (and former star recruit) Willie Baker, he should always have a scary complement. Meanwhile, though the tackle position isn’t blessed with as much girth as in years past, a trio of juniors (Jordan Bradford, Cedric Johnson, Keonatye Garner) should provide quality.

Louisiana Tech v Arkanss
Deldrick Canty
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

At the back, we don’t know about big-play prevention, but we know Tech has a play-maker in senior Secdrick Cooper. He had 6.5 tackles for loss and seven breakups last year. Coordinator Blake Baker seems torn between aggression and bend-don’t-break principles — Tech was better at big-play prevention (at least, with the ground game) than anything else last year, but Tech defensive backs recorded 10 sacks, which is as much as you’ll ever see. Regardless, Cooper’s fun to watch, and senior safety DaMarion King could be ready to a nice step forward in his second post-JUCO season.

Perhaps the most important player: cornerback Ephraim Kitchen. The junior combined 4.5 TFLs with four breakups in just eight games last year, but in two seasons he’s been unable to stay on the field. Most of Tech’s best defensive performances — the Arkansas game, plus the midseason surge of quality — happened with him on the field. Most of the horrendous performances (Texas Tech, MTSU, the WKU games, Navy) took place with him on the sideline.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at North Texas
Ephraim Kitchen
Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports


Special Teams

Kicker Jonathan Barnes was asked to attempt a lot of longer field goals and went 9-for-12 on kicks of 40-plus. The best-case scenario is that he is asked to attempt fewer field goals because the Tech offense is scoring touchdowns; regardless, he appears to have one of the C-USA’s better legs.

With Barnes, Tech’s unit should be decent. But as much as it hurts to lose Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson from the offense, it hurts almost as much in special teams. Neither were incredibly efficient, but they were all sorts of explosive. Henderson averaged 32 yards per kick return with two scores, and Taylor averaged 10.5 yards per punt return. They set the bar high.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Northwestern State NR 36.5 98%
9-Sep Mississippi State 30 -11.5 25%
16-Sep at Western Kentucky 51 -12.0 24%
23-Sep at South Carolina 36 -14.7 20%
30-Sep South Alabama 108 8.4 69%
7-Oct at UAB 130 20.3 88%
21-Oct Southern Miss 84 2.8 56%
28-Oct at Rice 120 6.4 64%
4-Nov North Texas 106 8.2 68%
11-Nov Florida Atlantic 99 6.1 64%
18-Nov at UTEP 126 8.9 70%
25-Nov UTSA 91 4.3 60%
Projected S&P+ Rk 82
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 48 / 114
Projected wins 7.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.8 (59)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 89 / 86
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -3.3
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 43% (26%, 59%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.6 (-0.6)

This season could go in quite a few different directions. It’s easy to assume regression for the offense and progress for the defense, but the amount of each could make the difference between a six-win season and a long-awaited Conference USA title.

I’m optimistic. The defense finally has a little continuity, and if Ephraim Kitchen is able to stay on the field, the secondary should boast stability. And while it will be hard to maintain last year’s offensive pace, I would be surprised if the Tech offense fell out of the Off. S&P+ top 40.

The schedule takes shape like last year’s. With games against Mississippi State and South Carolina sandwiching a trip to WKU, it’s possible that even a strong Tech team begins 1-3. But even while projecting the Bulldogs a pessimistic 82nd overall, S&P+ forecasts them as favorites in each of their final eight games. The top two other C-USA West contenders — Southern Miss (October 21), UTSA (November 25) — have to come to Ruston.

C-USA is getting its act together. If Holtz is going to steal his moment, it might have to come in 2017 or 2018, and I think his odds are solid.


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