Last season ended on a high note for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. They won their last three games, which included their fourth straight bowl victory in the surprising 51-10 blowout of SMU in the inaugural Frisco Bowl.
However, the season prior to that point was disappointing. Tech’s 4-6 record through 10 games was not what most of us anticipated seeing, but we probably set our expectations too high. Tech’s 2016 campaign was led by a nearly unstoppable offense consisting of a 4,600+ yard passer, a 1,000+ yard back, and TWO 1,500+ yard receivers. A combination that dynamic and complete had never been seen before. But with the quarterback and both receivers gone, we should have expected a step back.
Now, the expectations for 2018 are potentially a little more humbled in nature. Some expect a quick bounce back, others expect more mediocrity. Let’s take a look first at each unit, and then break down the schedule.
The offense in 2017 was, to put it bluntly, horrendous at times. After three years of senior quarterbacks, J’Mar Smith was just a sophomore, and it showed. That said, it wasn’t all bad. Despite a completion percentage of just 56 percent, he threw 16 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions and passed for just under 3,000 yards. He performed well in some games, but poorly in others. The key to a successful 2018 for Smith will be more consistency. Unlike last offseason, he didn’t play for the baseball team this season, so he’s had more time to work on his game and improve. Smith’s performance last year suggests he isn’t going to be a gunslinger that can will a team to win on his own, but if he’s consistent he can absolutely lead the team to victory, provided he has help.
Speaking of help, three starting wide receivers are returning, although one is moving to running back (Kam McKnight). Teddy Veal was the Conference USA Newcomer of the Year, and the senior led the team with 950 yards and seven scores. Rhashid Bonnette was second with 582 yards and a pair of scores. Adrian Hardy, although not listed as a returning starter, had 251 yards and a score. What’s also noteworthy is that both Bonnette and Hardy, among others, were injured at various points and didn’t play in every game. If the receivers can stay healthy, that could help Smith tremendously.
Tech returns four starting linemen, including second team all-conference lineman O’Shea Dugas. In addition, the offensive line was also injury-ridden, and the Bulldogs didn’t feature the same starting five in back-to-back games until November. With that, however, comes experience all over the depth chart. Again, stay healthy and things could be looking up.
The primary hole to fill is in the backfield. Over the past two seasons, Jarred Craft and Boston Scott combined for back-to-back 1,500+ yard seasons. Now, the reigns will be turned over to Kam McKnight and Jaqwis Dancy. McKnight, a senior, has been playing wide receiver until now, but he has been used as a running back in short yardage situations, such as the wildcat. He has 10 rushing scores over the last two seasons. At 6-2 and 232 pounds, he has the build for the position. Dancy, meanwhile, made his comeback last season after missing most of 2016 with cancer.
Now a year and a half removed from being declared cancer-free, Dancy is set to see a ton more action. Last season he rushed for 262 yards and two touchdowns in seven games, highlighted by a 135 yard performance against UTEP while Craft was out. The question for both, clearly, is how well will these two perform when asked to anchor the backfield rather than making occasional appearances. Having an experienced offensive line should help.
There is a ton of experience all over this offense, save the running backs. As long as everyone stays mostly healthy, the offense should be improved and more consistent.
After a dismal 2016, the defense made strides in 2017. In Tech’s last two games, they allowed a total of 16 points and just one touchdown (that one touchdown came while Tech held a 42-3 lead). Now, a large portion of the starters return for 2018.
Three of the four starting defensive linemen return, anchored by senior defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, a first team all-conference member and someone who has been receiving first round hype. One of two starting linebackers, Dae’von Washington, returns as well. Skip Holtz brought in multiple JUCO transfers at the position to help, too. An anonymous C-USA coach said Tech looked like a P5 defense up front. The question is, will they play like one?
As for the secondary, both starting corners return, including freshman All-American Amik Robertson. Robertson led the team with five interceptions, including a pick six in the Frisco Bowl. He’s primed to have another great season.
The catch is that Holtz and defensive coordinator Blake Baker have to replace two of three starting safeties, with Darryl Lewis as the lone returner. Secdrick Cooper will be missed, but it will be up to the young guys to step up. The Bulldogs have recruited fairly well the past couple of years, and now it’s time to see how well.
Like the offense, the defense brings back experience in several positions, although there is a hole at safety. Jaylon Ferguson and Amik Robertson are the stars who will look to lead this squad to a successful season.
Louisiana Tech opens 2018 on the road at South Alabama, a team Tech beat 34-16 last year. After that, Tech has its home opener against Southern. The Dawgs should expect to fare well against both sets of Jaguars. After an extremely early bye week, Tech heads down south to face LSU. This is the game being circled on the calendar by many Tech fans and many feel the Bulldogs can catch the Tigers in a down year. That remains to be seen, but this could be the best opportunity the Dawgs have had against “that school” in a very long time. A win would be tough, but not impossible.
After LSU, Louisiana Tech opens conference play. The next two weeks could make or break Tech’s bid to a return to the Conference USA Championship Game. Just a week removed from what should be an emotional trip to Baton Rouge, the Bulldogs head to Apogee to face the defending West Division champs, North Texas. The next game is at home against second place finisher UAB. North Texas, UAB, and La Tech are the three teams I expect to compete for the division, so these games are huge for all parties. The three game stretch of at LSU, at UNT and UAB will have a significant amount of say about how this season will be viewed among fans.
The next game will not exactly be a cakewalk. The Bulldogs will make just their third-ever trip to San Antonio to face UTSA in the Alamodome. After this, they finally catch a break with UTEP at home, but then it’s right back into the fire.
The Dawgs end October on the road on a Friday night against the #LaneTrain, and then they travel to Starkville to face Mississippi State. Both will be extremely tough games, and a win in either one would be huge.
The final stretch starts with a home game against Rice, a road game against rival Southern Miss, and finally back home to face WKU on senior day. Rice should be a victory, and WKU could be down. Tech is tired of losing to Southern Miss and these two teams don’t care about records when they play. That will easily be the biggest game of this final stretch.
The schedule is tough, no way around it. Still, if Tech rebounds from last year, somewhere from seven to nine regular season wins seems doable. 10 wins is probably the ceiling with six wins being the floor.
The West Division is wide open this year. Louisiana Tech should improve on both sides of the ball and rebound from a letdown year in 2017. Reaching the championship game for the third time in five seasons is certainly possible.
One thing is certain. I said last season was a letdown year. Louisiana Tech went 7-6 and won a bowl game. During Tech’s tenure in the WAC from 2001-2012, the Bulldogs went to three bowl games and only won one of them. Sure, there were a couple of years where Tech had a winning record and got left home because of how few tie-ins the WAC had, but prior to Skip Holtz’s arrival, Tech had two bowl wins. He’s won four straight. Whether Louisiana Tech improves this season or not, the program has skyrocketed from where it was a decade ago, and all signs point to that trend continuing into the future.