Even the Losers: Louisiana Tech
2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 Conference USA)
Summary: After going a combined 17-8 in 2011 and 2012, the Bulldogs lost their head coach as Sonny Dykes took his spread attach west to the University of California. In his stead, the Bulldogs chose a proven mid-major commodity who had just been fired by South Florida, Skip Holtz. The younger Holtz would have to replace some key pieces on offense, but a reasonable fan likely still expected the Bulldogs to at least compete for bowl eligibility, and the most delusional supporters likely figured the Bulldogs to be in the mix for the Conference USA title. The year began rather inauspiciously, with a 40-14 shellacking at the hands of NC State, a team that would go on to finish 0-8 in the ACC. The Bulldogs returned home and beat Lamar from IAA and on a short week, hosted in-state foe Tulane (in just their second ever meeting) in their first conference game as a member of Conference USA. The Bulldogs were held to 15 points and dropped to 1-2. The next week they traveled to Kansas and lost to a Jayhawk team that had not beaten a IA team since 2011. The next week, the Bulldogs lost to Army before ending their three-game skid the following week at UTEP. After a week off, the Bulldogs lost at home to North Texas, then won two in a row against the dregs of Conference USA (Florida International and Southern Miss). With just a touch of momentum built up, the Bulldogs responded by losing each of their final three games by at least ten points to Rice, Tulsa, and Texas-San Antonio to finish 4-8 and equal their losses from the previous two seasons combined.
What Did the Bulldogs Do Well?
Beat the dregs of the conference. While the Bulldogs didn't win every game they were favored in, losing to both Tulane and in the non-conference against Army as a betting favorite, the Bulldogs three conference wins came against UTEP, Florida International, and Southern Miss. Those three teams combined for a 4-32 overall record with two of the wins coming in pillow fights among themselves (UTEP over Florida International and Florida International over Southern Miss).
What Didn't the Bulldogs Do Well?
Have explosive receivers. The bad news for Louisiana Tech is that their top quartet of receivers from 2013 will be gone when the 2014 season begins. The good news is those four gentlemen, led by Sterling Griffin, combined for just 1252 yards on 124 catches with just four touchdowns. 16 individual receivers had more yards in 2013. Two receivers had more catches. More than 100 receivers had more touchdown receptions. Every receiver in the top-100 in yards per catch averaged at least five yards more per reception than the piddling 10.1 this quartet averaged collectively. Some new blood, and experience at the quarterback position will not hurt in 2014.
The Bulldogs Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Louisiana Tech's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Louisiana Tech played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Bulldogs averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Bulldogs allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
Sonny Dykes took over for Derek Dooley in 2010 after Vince's son and Bill's nephew left for Ol' Rocky Top. The 2010 team was not especially strong, but managed a 4-4 mark in the WAC. With the WAC weakened by the departure of Boise State in 2011, the Bulldogs rose to the occasion and won the conference title on the strength of a fantastic defense and played in just their third bowl game in the last two decades. Perhaps ironically, while Dykes came to Ruston as an offensive guru, his first two teams were middling on that side of the ball. His 2012 team on the other hand, lit up the scoreboard, averaging over 51 points per game. The Bulldogs came into 2012, and an even weaker WAC, as the preseason favorite. They began the season with a 9-1 record, including road wins at Illinois and Virginia, with their lone loss up to that point coming to eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Their defense, an issue all season, let them down in the final two games, allowing 100 combined points to Utah State and San Jose State as the Bulldogs missed out on consecutive league titles. Still, with a 9-3 mark, a bowl game was seemingly assured. However, the Bulldogs either turned down or waited too long to accept an invitation (depending on your point of view) to the Independence Bowl (held in their home state) and were not invited to any other postseason contest. Sonny Dykes took the head coaching job at Cal, senior quarterback Colby Cameron matriculated, and Louisiana Tech had a player selected in the NFL Draft for the first time since 2010. Actually, with receiver Quinton Patton and offensive lineman Jordan Mills being taken, the Bulldogs had a pair of players selected. Skip Holtz took the reigns and as expected with all the attrition, the offense declined significantly. However, it pays to mention the defense improved by nearly as much as the offense declined.
The 2014 Schedule:
For Louisiana Tech, the non-conference schedule is far from easy. The Bulldogs have assured themselves at least two losses as they travel to Oklahoma and national runner-up Auburn. A third non-conference game comes on the road at Louisiana-Lafayette, a nascent Sun Belt power under Mark Hudspeth that has played in three consecutive bowl games. Once upon a time, the Cajuns and Bulldogs were annual foes, playing thirteen consecutive seasons from 1988 through 2000. These two have not met since 2004, and the Bulldogs have won six straight in the series, but times are a lot different than they were a decade ago. The team from Lafayette will likely be favored in this one. Their other non-conference game is a likely win against IAA Northwestern State. That means the Bulldogs will need to win at least four and more likely five conference games to attain bowl eligibility. In conference play, the Bulldogs will host Rice, Texas-San Antonio, UTEP, and Western Kentucky. Rice won ten games and the conference title last season, but must replace their starting quarterback and running back. Texas-San Antonio went 7-5 in just their second season of IA football last season. UTEP won two games last season and has not finished with a winning record since 2005. Western Kentucky appears to be on the upswing as a IA program, off their third consecutive winning campaign after an initial struggle transitioning to big time football. On the road in conference play, the Bulldogs travel to North Texas, Old Dominion, Southern Miss, and UAB. North Texas nearly won the division last season, but that was their first winning season in nearly a decade. Old Dominion is transitioning to IA and went 8-4 last season, but against IA teams, they were just 1-4 with the lone win coming against Idaho. Southern Miss has won just once in their past 24 games. UAB has not had a winning season since 2004, and their coach of two seasons decided he would rather be the offensive coordinator at Louisville. With some improvement on both sides of the ball, its not hard to envision Louisiana Tech winning the requisite five conference games needed to attain bowl eligibility.
Reasons for Optimism:
Kenneth Dixon. When the Bulldogs were a scoring machine in 2012, freshman Kenneth Dixon tallied nearly 1200 yards on the ground and finished tops nationally with 27 rushing touchdowns. Despite missing the final two games of the 2013 season with a knee injury, Dixon actually averaged slightly more yards per rush (6.07) despite not quite getting to 1000 yards (finished with 917). Of course, as Louisiana Tech did not find themselves around the goalline quite as much, Dixon finished with just four rushing touchdowns. Provided he stays healthy, you can pencil Dixon in for another 1000 yards rushing.
Conference USA is not the SEC. So despite a non-conference schedule that will do them no favors (last season's non-conference slate consisting of Army, Kansas, Lamar, and NC State was much easier) in terms of qualifying for a bowl, getting to five league wins is not out of the question. Neither the offense nor defense were particularly strong in 2013, with both ranking ninth in the league in yards per play. However, in a 16-team league, it does not take a math major to realize that is middle of the pack. If the passing game can improve at all, the Bulldogs appear to have a reliable ground game behind Kenneth Dixon, and could move into the top-third of the conference on offense. Similarly, its not hard to picture the defense seeing modest improvement. Couple that potential with a road schedule that features two of the weaker teams in the conference (Southern Miss and UAB) and a team new to IA football (Old Dominion) and a bowl game seems quite possible. I see the Bulldogs finishing with either five, six, or seven regular season wins depending on how their luck shakes out. Six wins will get them to bowl eligibility, but the Bulldogs will need seven to guarantee a bowl bid.