The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs have been the class of the West for the past three years, winning the division twice with a second place finish in between. They’ve also won three straight bowl games, giving them back-to-back-to-back nine-win seasons.
But the Dawgs are still hungry. Each season has seen missed opportunities that have left a sour taste. And as great as bowl trophies and division titles are, Loyal Blue Nation desperately wants conference titles, double digit wins, and some conquered SEC scalps on the wall.
Can these things come in 2017? Tech will need some new faces to step up, but there’s some experience and talent there. There is plenty of continuity in the coaching staff, however. Will that be enough?
The talk of the Bulldogs’ offense is none other than starting QB J’Mar Smith. He’s not only got power in his arm, but he also knows when to tuck the ball and run, which could add an interesting aspect to a typically pass-happy offense. The big question mark for Tech’s offense is at wide receiver. How do you replace the huge void left by Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor? Alfred Smith returns for his sophomore season looking to start at wide receiver with appearances in 11 of last year’s games, and has experience in the program to land a starting role.
Wide receiver Marlon Watts looks to start his senior season, but filling a top five receiver’s shoes won’t be easy, especially when junior Kam McKnight (who has extensive experience in both passing and rushing in 2016) and Tulane transfer Teddy Veal are fighting tooth and nail for the starting spots. Just for fun, throw in former Oklahoma commit Adrian Hardy. One thing is for certain, if Smith can’t connect with his receivers, the front-runners for the C-USA West could have a disastrous 2017 season.
The run game is looking pretty solid as both running backs Jared Craft and Boston Scott return to the offense for 2017 along with three starting offensive linemen. Finishing 2016 with a respectable 1074 yards and 9 touchdowns, Craft will likely be taking the starting spot for his senior season, but look for Scott to make some big plays as well. If the receivers have a tough time getting anything going for Tech, look for Smith to tuck-and-run or look to Craft to make some serious rushing plays.
If there’s one thing that Louisiana Tech fans know all too well, it’s a 40+ points per game average offense paired with a 250+ yards per game passing defense (or something to that tune). With the Bulldogs finishing 2016 ranked 116th in passing defense, it’s hard to go anywhere but up. Though the defense suffered in 2016, seasoned returning talent should pull the Bulldogs’ pass defense up in 2017. Tech’s defense is very fortunate to have one of the best defensive ends in nation, Jaylon Ferguson, return to play his junior year. Ferguson finished 2016 with 14.5 sacks and is looking to continue putting pressure on quarterbacks to help the defense improve. Although he’s the star of the defensive line, players like Deldrick Canty will make the unit as a whole very solid.
Secdrick Cooper will anchor the secondary following the departure of Xavier Woods. Other names to watch are Ephraim Kitchen, L’Jarius Sneed, Michael Sam, and Amik Robertson. Meanwhile, Russell Farris is the lone returning starter at linebacker. This is a squad with a chip on its shoulder after last season’s poor performance and has been putting in some good work during fall camp.
Filling in the gap left by kick returner Carlos Henderson won’t be an easy task, but Tech has a few options. Freshman Amik Robertson has some experience in the return game. This could also be a landing spot for reserve running back Jaqwis Dancy, who will be making his return from beating cancer. We could also see a wide receiver in this role.
As for punter, Skip Holtz looked across the Pacific to Australian football player Davan Dyer. Along with him comes two-time Lou Groza Award semifinalist Jonathan Barnes, whose late-game field goal brought the Bulldogs victory over No. 25 Navy at the 2016 Armed Forces Bowl. If Barnes can continue his success with 56 career field goals, 2017 could be the year he finally gets the Lou Groza Trophy.
Sept 2 - Northwestern State Demons (W)
Once upon a time this was a huge rivalry. Tech has moved up in the world and left NSU in the dust, but that didn’t stop NSU from stealing one a few years ago. Skip Holtz likely hasn’t forgotten that. Add in that NSU’s lone 2016 win was over a Division II school and look for a big warm up win for Tech.
Sept 9 - Mississippi State Bulldogs (W)
Mississippi State didn’t look great last year out of conference. They lost to South Alabama at home and BYU on the road. They struggled against FCS Samford and UMass, a team Tech blew out. They backdoored their way in to a bowl game at 5-7 and needed a blocked field goal to beat 6-6 Miami (OH). The last time State came to Ruston, they lost. Tech has a decent shot to make that happen again.
Sept 16 - @ Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (L)
These two teams have put up some great games the past few years and dominated most of the conference. WKU, like Tech will need to lean on some new faces this year. WKU, however, must also break in a new coaching staff. That could give Tech an edge. However, the home team has always won when these two face off, and although this could go either way, we’ll lean towards history and pick the Toppers.
Sept 23 - @ South Carolina Gamecocks (L)
Like Mississippi State, South Carolina hasn’t been great recently. This was a team that was up and down last year. They knocked off Tennessee and hung tough with USF, but they also struggled against UMass. If Tech knocks off Mississippi State, that could give them the experience and confidence to take out South Carolina, but it’s more likely that the trip to Columbia will be a long flight home.
Sept 30 - South Alabama Jaguars (W)
The Jags are a confusing team. They went on the road and beat Mississippi State and blew out #19 San Diego State back in Mobile. This is also a team, however, that lost to Georgia Southern and ULM while needing overtime to beat FCS Nicholls State. Which USA will make the trip to Ruston? We’ll take the safer bet and look for the Dawgs to win at home.
Oct 7 - @ UAB Blazers (W)
Welcome back Blazers! UAB is a team that is hard to predict for 2017, but it’s gonna be tough for them to face La Tech. They do get a bye week before welcoming the Dawgs to Birmingham, which will be their first conference home game since 2014, but it’s hard to think that will be enough for UAB to pull the upset.
Oct 21 - Southern Miss Golden Eagles (W)
Hoo boy. The Rivalry in Dixie is a big one. Besides the fact the hate has been growing between them, Southern Miss is the only west division team to beat La Tech since 2013. Oh yeah, they’ve done it twice. Jay Hopson will look to bring Southern Miss back to the top in his second year, and this is a proud program and fan base. However, Tech has plenty of pride, itself. The Dawgs will want this win. This will likely be a filled stadium and an electric atmosphere, and that should help propel Tech to victory.
Oct 28 - @ Rice Owls (W)
Speaking of proud programs, here come the Rice Owls. However, that pride has faltered lately as Rice has gone from C-USA champs in 2013 to missing bowl season the past two years. With no signs of significant improvement for 2017, expect Tech to handle Rice as easily as they have the past three seasons.
Nov 4 - North Texas Mean Green (W)
Can someone drop a link to the US law that I apparently missed that these two must always play each other for homecoming? This will be the third straight year and fourth time in five years the Bulldogs and Mean Green have used each other for homecoming. North Texas looks to improve in Seth Littrell’s second season, but they won’t be that improved.
Nov 11 - Florida Atlantic Owls (W)
‘Sup, Lane Train? Kiffin’s Owls will come to Ruston for the first ever meeting between these two schools. FAU, like much of the east division, is hard to predict for 2017. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Atlantic in a bowl game, but will they be able to improve from 3-9 to winning in the Joe in just one year? That’s a tall order.
Nov 18 - @ UTEP Miners (W)
This is a sneaky one. This will be at the end of finals week for Louisiana Tech, where it’s hard to have effective practices. Two years ago, Tech made the long trek to El Paso at this point in the year and struggled against a UTEP squad that had to win to make a bowl. Tech won, but it was far from pretty and was their lowest scoring game of the year. UTEP hasn’t looked good in the mean time, but as North Texas can attest, never enter the Sun Bowl lightly.
Nov 25 - UTSA Roadrunners (W)
The regular season finale should be a grand one. UTSA is a team entering 2017 with a chip on its shoulder and division title aspirations in Frank Wilson’s second year. UTSA came in to Ruston last year hopeful, but was just outmatched. They’ll want revenge this year in a game that could possibly decide the west division. UTSA should be in for a great season, and if this game was in San Antonio I might think differently, but the final stand of a seven home game season should end in a Bulldog victory.
Regular season prediction: 10-2 (7-1)
Expectations from both Bulldogs fans and the team is to bring home the Conference USA Championship. This season seems to depend heavily on whether the receiving corps can produce like the #2 scoring offense did in 2016 and whether the defense can show marked improvement.
With solid talent on offense, and experience on defense, Tech should have enough power to take charge of the C-USA West, and give each team on their schedule a tough game to play.