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Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 2016 Preview

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At the south end of Joe Aillet Stadium stands a bronze Bulldog statue named the Spirit of '88. The statue commemorates the 1988 Bulldog football team which blazed the path into Division I-A football for Louisiana Tech.

We’re a long way from the WAC, and the Bulldogs wouldn’t have it any other way.

Through the changing landscape of college football, Louisiana Tech and their administration seemed to be content to just let the world pass them by, remaining for years in a conference where their nearest opponent was over 1600 miles away, and even then, LT didn’t exactly have a reputation for a lot of victories on the football field, for their trouble.

It seemed almost begrudging that Tech even left a conference they seemed a bad fit for, geographically speaking, finally landing in the much more localized Conference USA, where they can properly market themselves, and perhaps even bother to spend the money for a coach worth having. Sonny Dykes was fine and all, peaking in 2012 at 9-3, but that season seemed more an anomaly than business-as-usual.

Skip Holtz has been doing things a little differently.

Taking over a team that hasn’t had double-digit wins in a season since 1974, Holtz went 4-8 his first season, then more than doubled that output the next year, going 8-5 on the season, then notching a 9th win over Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Expectations were so high for 2015, an 8-4 regular season plus a New Orleans Bowl win against a Sun Belt team seemed almost a letdown, but it’s hard to stay mad when you’re partying during bowl season, a mere four hours from campus.

Holtz returns for his fourth season at La Tech this year, making him the longest tenured coach for the Bulldogs since Jack Bicknell from 1999-2006, and that guy only achieved one bowl game (a loss) during that span. Expectations are, for a team in Louisiana NOT named the Tigers, enormous.

OFFENSE

Gone is record-setting quarterback Jeff Driskel, as the graduation beast must claim us all. Instead the Bulldogs have to “make do” with senior Ryan Higgins who backed up Driskel the past two seasons, but threw for over 1700 yards in 2013, going 166-for-281 with six touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

And that was the year Tech went 4-8.

The system has obviously clicked, and while Holtz is on record as saying Higgins won’t start in week one at Arkansas (due to a DUI arrest earlier this summer), he hasn’t ruled out playing him at some point in the game. Every other QB on the roster is a freshman, save for redshirt sophomore Price Wilson, but Holtz has an eye for talent, and an eye on divisional leader Southern Miss, whom they don’t play until the final week.

Whomever the QB in whatever week, targets will include returning WRs Trent Taylor (Sr) and Carlos Henderson (Jr), who hauled in 1282 and 774 reception yards last season, respectively. Pounding it out on the ground, RBs Jarrod Craft and Boston Scott, also both of whom saw significant playing time last season, rushing for over 500 yards combined. Additionally, Tech returns all five offensive lineman, with Holtz also commenting this is the deepest OL he’s had in four years.

This is a team built to win, but while the other top contender in CUSA West (Southern Miss) opens their season against Kentucky, FCS Savannah State and Troy, the Bulldogs will be opening their own season against Arkansas, FCS South Carolina State, and Texas Tech.

DEFENSE

The top tacklers from last season are gone, but expect some noise from junior-college transfer and former South Carolina signee Kalan Ritchie, and also Jaylon Ferguson, who had six sacks last year as a freshman. The squad is replacing seven starters, but second-year DC and 33-year-old Blake Baker will show the Tech Blue what he’s got under his sleeve. With Rice and UTSA nipping at the teams heels in the standings, they’ll have no shortage of motivation.

Louisiana Tech’s most decorated player is also returning in the secondary. Senior safety Xavier Woods was named to the first team All-CUSA list while also appearing on watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski and Jim Thorpe awards. Woods is a stabilizing presence on a defense that needs to replace, well, practically everybody.

SCHEDULE

Despite everything above, everything below could still go any way you like. An errant pass, a gust of wind, an injured player can mean all the difference from game to game. You already know all this, let’s just shut up and get to the schedule.

9/3 – @ Arkansas (L)

Arkansas is a not-great team, but they’re a not-great SEC team.

9/10 – South Carolina State (W)

Using an FCS as a tune-up is still kinda rude, plus you run the risk of embarrassing yourself if you have a bad week. Still, Louisiana Tech is not North Texas, and should handle this one just fine. Mark it W.

9/17 - @ Texas Tech (L)

The Big 12 is not the SEC, but if there were an equivalent program between the two conferences, it’d be Texas Tech and Arkansas. So much potential, but always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Point being, tune in this week to watch the Bulldogs get their ass beat by a bunch of bridesmaids.

9/24 - @ Middle Tennessee (W)

That’s a great team, but let’s not forget the Dawgs beat the Raiders last year 45-16. Sure, Tech lost a few players, but 29 points worth? Har har.

10/1 – UTEP (W)

There are some mad Miner faithful out there, defending an inferior product with the rabidity of Suicide Squad apologists, but a close 17-15 game on the road last year should turn into an easy win in Ruston for the Bulldogs this year.

10/8 – Western Kentucky (L)

Playing the cream of the CUSA crop, this is where the rebuilding will really show for Tech, but luckily after this they don’t really have any games to stress about until the season finale. With WKU replacing some players of its own, this could be a great game to watch, but as much as we love Tech Blue, we’re not guaranteeing anything.

10/15 -- @ UMass (W)

Are these guys still FBS? Expect an easy win here, the score should be comparable to whatever the SCST score was.

10/22 - @ FIU (W)

We’d love to say something snarky here, but FIU is actually making a respectable rebuilding effort. So this will be a game, y’know, but… they’re still FIU. Check the W.

10/29 – Rice (W)

LT is rebuilding, but so is Rice who had a less-than-stellar year last year. We’ll give this edge to the home team, and call for a close, but not decisive, victory for Tech.

11/5 -- @ North Texas (W)

Also a rebuilding project, NT is in the first year with a new coach having to rebuild what was basically an FCS squad last year, based on their quality of play and near total roster turnover. With a new AD and a newfound commitment for winning, UNT may even be a threat in a few years. But not today… not today.

11/12 – UTSA (W)

Another rebuilding project touted as the most-improved team in CUSA, you can’t just walk into the Bulldogs house and expect respect. UTSA has never won anything and even in week 11 after having the season to gel, we don’t see them knocking off a divisional contender this year.

11/26 - @ Southern Miss (Pick ‘Em)

Two weeks to prepare for what may be the biggest game of the season for both. Southern Miss has an easy schedule, Louisiana Tech had anything but. This one is too close to call, and the winner holds an excellent chance of winning the CUSA Title Game as well. Sure, LT is rebuilding… so is USM. If you put a gun to our head, we’d give the edge to USM, but they’ve got a first-year head coach, and Skip Holtz has been around the block. Grab your favorite craft beer and hunker down, son, we got ourselves a ball game!

PROJECTED FINISH – 8-4 (6-2)