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2018 Previews: Louisiana Tech

Sometimes a team is everyone’s dark horse. That really makes them a favorite.

In the case of the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, they actually are the favorites to win the division. Let us be clear: We are not talking about the silly beat writer’s poll before media day who picked NT to repeat as West champs.

If you look at the oddsmakers, FAU is the betting favorite to win the league with some books havin the Owls at -115 (20/23 if you prefer fractional odds) and Louisiana Tech at +700 (7/1).

It has been funny to watch everyone say “Lousiana Tech might be the sleeper in the division” (including this site) when the evidence suggests we should be talking about them like the favorites. So let’s.

Skip Holtz is the most proven coach in this division, lacking a league title, but competing for them more than once, which is the best anyone else can say. He has won more bowl games and had more experience than anyone in the division.

Video:

Skip Holtz at CUSA Kickoff 2018

He has the deepest team in the league coming off a fall full of motivation. The recipe is right for success, which is interesting, because Tech has had successful seasons in all of Skip’s time.

After going 4-8 in 2014, he has had a winning record and a bowl appearance in each of the last four seasons. Last year was ‘down’ simply because he did not compete for a conference title (has been two the CUSA Championship game twice) and did not win 9 games.

Tech managed seven wins with a cathartic blowout over SMU in the inaugural Frisco Bowl.

Interestingly, in the last four seasons Tech has won in Fort Worth (Armed Forces), Heart of Dallas (Dallas), Frisco (Frisco) and only needs the actual ATT Cotton Bowl Classic to complete the DFW Bowl Slam.

Schedule

Date Opp TV
9/1 @ USA ESPN+
9/8 SOUTHERN ESPN+
9/22 @ LSU TBA
9/29 @ NT * BeIN
10/6 UAB * facebook
10/13 @ UTSA * ESPN+
10/20 UTEP * ESPN+
10/26 @ FAU * CBSSN
11/3 @ MSST TBA
11/10 RICE * ESPN+
11/17 @ USM * Stadium
11/24 WKU * CBSSN

As we discussed previously, last season was tough but ended rosily. Tech finished 4-4 in conference and lost some absolute heartbreakers to UAB, USM, and UNT. In January this blog wrote that if the offense or defense were 10% more consistent that could be the difference from a title game appearance and being an also-ran.

So it is this year, with Tech presumably at least 10% better. Skip Holtz has discussed the remarkable fact that this is the first time he has had a returning starter at QB in a long while. J’Mar Smith seemed like a can’t-miss talent in his appearance against Arkansas two seasons ago. Looking back, he benefited greatly from the presence of two future NFL-ers.

None of that is to say he is bad, but that this is a team game and Tech did not have consistent teammates for Smith to throw the ball to. Teddy Veal caught ~31% of passes from all QBs (Westin Elliot threw 9 passes and completed 4.) The next leading pass-catcher Rhashid Bonnette caught 33 balls (14%) of 233 completed passses.

A couple of notes about the above: Tech completed the fewest passes since 2009, when Ross Jenkins and company combined for only 188. In the Holtz period, it is the fewest since 2014, when Cody Sokol managed 270. Interestingly, that was Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson’s first season and that WR group had a split like Veal and Bonnette did in 2017. Taylor grabbed 64 passes or 23% and Paul Turner grabbed 42 or 15% of balls.

The point here is that Tech was figuring out where they playmakers were going to be, and how to get them the ball. This happens in a transitional year. Taylor and Henderson — and even Jarred Craft — caught so many passes for so long it was always expected that the offense would struggle some.

That said, 2997 yards passing is not bad but it is not going to stand out in a pass-happy conference with 9 of 14 teams putting up 6.9 and above yards-per-attempt numbers.

Tech’s 55.5% completion rate was among the worst in the league, right under Southern Miss’s carrousel of QBs, and just above Old Dominion’s 17-year old QB, Rice’s awful offense and Charlotte and UTEP’s sub-50% numbers.

In 2016 Tech was the best in the league (66%) and had not been below 60% since — you guessed it — 2014.

So the working theory of this preview is that 2017 was simply a rebuilding year — a good one all told — and we should get back to seeing the top-4 Tech we saw recently.

Offense

J’Mar Smith returns at QB and Holtz is excited about that. He will throw to fellow returnees Teddy Veal and Rhashid Bonnette. If the offense runs anything like we have seen in the past, those two will catch a ton of passes and there will be fireworks. Veal was consistent all season, but had his best game against South Carolina grabbing 10 for 110 and a score before outdoing himself and grabbing 5 for 118 and 2 scores in the Frisco Bowl. Bonnette had some bad stretches — only grabbing 2 passes in four weeks due partly to injury — but was the second-leading pass-catcher. In fall practice, he has been back to form.

Kam McKnight is now a running back, and we should see him in the pass game (so is he still a RB or what?) but the starting job is up for grabs. We should see redshirt junior Jaqwis Dancy — he returned from cancer! — get lots of touches with redshirt sophomore Israel Tucker behind him.

There are some intriguing guys behind Dancy and we might see some competition throughout the season. The new redshirt rules will add another variable. If Veal, Bonnete and Smith can get on the same page, this offense should be good. They have four returning starting lineman — Kody Russey, Ethan Reed, Michael Rodriguez, and O’Shea Dugas — to protect Smith and open up lanes for Dancy.

The key here will be J’Mar Smith. He has the talent and the poise and now needs to complete passes at a better clip, and be the guy that Louisiana Tech fans want to see. Tech has had a history of good QBs and there is no reason why J’Mar can’t be the next in that line.

Defense

Three of four return up front, including Jaylon Ferguson. This defense is maligned for allowing North Texas to drive for the winning field goal, or UAB to score 23. In reality the defense played remarkably well and the only team to completely win the matchup was the juggernaut FAU squad. Ferguson, Jordan Bradford, and Keonatye Garner return as starters, and Matthew Ydarraga returns from the two-deep, looking to start at the other end.

Amik Robertson returns in the secondary, the leading interceptor of passes last season, and member of various award watch-lists. L’Jarius Sneed returns at the other corner spot along with S Darryl Lewis. The secondary lost the two safeties Secdrick Cooper and Elliott Blankenship, and DE Deldrick Canty and LB Russell Farris are gone.

In their places are likely to be Jordan Baldwin, Jaiden Cole, and James Jackson along with some of the of the new signees. Tech also brought in some JUCO LBs to compete for the job.

Advanced numbers suggest that defensive secondary experience plays a bigger role in determining a defense’s ability. Still, it is not a completely new group, but we will see some breakdowns in the back. The squad will have a couple of weeks before they are tested by LSU and UNT in back-to-back weeks. The Tigers might be beatable, especially if the front-six can go toe-to-toe with that group, and force LSU to pass the ball.

North Texas has the best group of wideouts in the league, and that might be a challenge for the new safeties. Tech can feel good about their front, and that should make things easier to process when defending the pass game. For all the new offensive packages coming out, a good defensive line will go a long way toward winning games. This group is one of the conference’s best.

Overall

Everyone should be better and hopefully healthier this season. There never is any telling where the ball will bounce but if any team could use a little more good luck it is this one. That said, the old adage about making your own luck applies. Holtz had a youngish but talented squad and it showed. The inconsistency week-to-week comes with that combination. J’Mar Smith might not have a second-year leap like UNT’s Mason Fine, but he should be better and the game should be slower. In this era of QBs, that means the entire offense should be more productive.

Even if the defense were to drop off ever so slightly, they have enough talent to deal with most squads in this league. FAU is back, but they have had changes. UNT is explosive, but their one weekness is blocking for Fine and Tech can pressure. NT only managed 23 in Ruston, after all.

Terrible Predictions

Tech should be 2-0 going into the biggest game of the month in Baton Rouge. If there was a year ripe for upsetting the Tigers in that stadium it is this year. Beyond that, they should be underdogs. LT has impressed on the road at Arkansas and at South Carolina and these Tigers should not be overwhelming. Still, we’ll call it a loss.

The league season begins on the road in Denton, against the division’s best offense. If NT wants to repeat, they’ll have to do it by beating Tech in Dallas-Fort Worth, a place where the Bulldogs shine. This should be a raucous atmosphere. Tech fans travel well, and NT fans are riding the Littrell hype train. This has CUSA Game of The Year potential. NT plays well at home and the emotional rollercoaster from playing in Baton Rouge just a week before (NT plays Liberty that week) might conspire against Tech.

UAB will be tough again. They were an unknown last season, and that helped them surprise people. Tech has bad feelings about the way the game ended in Birmingham and will be itching to set things right in Ruston. The Bulldogs are the better team and have the home advantage.

UTSA is not as good as in year’s past. The Dome is loud, but this should be a relatively easy win. UTEP is rebuilding and has to come to Ruston, that should be an easy win before Tech gets another crack at FAU in Boca Raton.

Following that is another trip to Mississippi State, this time against a team that has lost their coach but should still be talented. We should not see a 57-21 loss, and perhaps could see an upset. Rice will be tougher, but has to travel to Louisiana. Southern Miss will be tough at home but has (still) QB questions and had to replace their entire secondary.

Finally, Western Kentucky comes to Ruston as a shell of the team that was a shootout partner. Tech should win this easily, even though they struggled in Bowling Green last year.

Final terrible prediction: 8-4, 5-3

So much depends on the NT and FAU games, both on the road. North Texas’ trips to ODU, UAB, and home to FAU will determine if the Mean Green have more than 2 losses and so that September kick-off could be for the division.

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