Don’t worry, there’s no incoming opening-week loss to Maryland to concern yourself with this year. Before the Texas Longhorns host Louisiana’s superior college football team in the national spotlight on Sep. 7, they’ll have to get through Louisiana’s only Conference USA representative first —Texas will play host to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs to start the season on Aug. 31. The Bulldogs went 8-5 and won five conference games last season.
Louisiana Tech heads into the 2019 season with plenty of momentum on its side. In 2018, the Bulldogs defeated an impressive nine-win North Texas team, hung around with LSU for three quarters (trailed 24-21 midway through the fourth quarter) in Baton Rouge, and ended the season with a 17-point bowl win over Hawaii.
Now in his seventh year as the program’s head coach, Skip Holtz has turned Louisiana Tech into a consistent middle-to-top tier contender in the Conference USA since 2014, though he’s still in search of his first conference championship with the Bulldogs.
Is this the year?
Probably not, but SB Nation’s Bill Connelly and his S&P+ team ratings have the Bulldogs trending upwards this season. The S&P+ rating system uses play data and opponent adjustments to make up their deep team-evaluation system.
With plenty of talent and production returning from last year’s team, the Bulldogs are considered to be a top-tier contender in their conference this season. S&P+ projects them to win 8.1 games this season — the most among all Conference USA teams. With top divisional contenders North Texas and Southern Miss coming to Ruston, the schedule is set up favorably for the Bulldogs in the West.
Connelly believes that the Conference USA will be home to the best conference title race in college football this year. He ranked Louisiana Tech as the lowest top-tier contending team in his C-USA power rankings but says, “I have no idea how to separate the six teams here from one another, and either of the two teams in the tier below — you know, the two that played for the title last year — could make a run with minimal surprises.”
As far as experience and returning production go, Texas and Louisiana Tech are merely replicas of each other on both sides of the ball.
A big reason why Louisiana Tech is favored in most of its games is courtesy of the amount of production the Bulldogs return on the offensive side of the ball. The high potential upside for this team comes on offense considering their stability on the line mixed with their depth, talent, and experience at each skill position. Although they ranked No. 111 nationally in total offense last season, the Bulldogs return their top players at each skill position and six offensive linemen with starting experience. They are led by fifth-year quarterback J’Mar Smith and their 1,000-plus-yard wide receiver Adrian Hardy.
Hardy, a former Houston Dekaney High School alum and Oklahoma Sooners signee, broke out for 1,145 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 75 catches in Tech’s pass-heavy offense last season. He picked apart LSU’s secondary for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches last September. He’ll likely be the focal point of their offense come Week 1.
The 6’2 wide receiver will present the perfect season-opening challenge for sophomore cornerbacks Anthony Cook and Jalen Green. With LSU’s plethora of talented wide receivers (Jonathan Giles, Ja’Marr Chase, Terrance Marshall Jr, Justin Jefferson, etc.) standing in the way the following week, facing a big-play wideout like Hardy will be beneficial for these two in preparation for LSU.
While they return plenty of talent and experience on the offensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs have to replace multiple key playmakers on defense. It starts with replacing the NCAA FBS career leader in sacks — Jaylon Ferguson. As the anchor of their defensive line last season as a senior, Ferguson tallied 17.5 sacks to lead a defense that ranked fourth in sack rate. It’s not just Ferguson they have to replace up front, either, as Tech returns just two upperclassmen on their defensive line.
There are more voids to fill than just the defensive line, too. The Bulldogs lost their aggressive-style defensive coordinator Blake Baker to Miami after Manny Diaz was hired. Holtz brought in former Broyles Award winner and UConn head coach Bob Diaco to replace Baker. So, the Bulldogs will be breaking in a brand new defensive style for the first time against Texas.
While there are multiple voids to fill up front, the back-end of Louisiana Tech’s defense looks to be its biggest strength heading into the season. Standing at 5’9, cornerback Amik Robertson will be the leader of a secondary that returns plenty of experience at each position. Robertson totaled 27 pass breakups, 15 tackles for a loss, and nine interceptions throughout his first two seasons. Whether he’s matched up against Collin Johnson or the fastest receiver on the field, Robertson can be a game-changer for the Bulldogs.
Last season, Louisiana Tech ranked 125th in kickoff efficiency, 118th in kick return efficiency, and 100th in field-goal efficiency. Returning kicker Bailey Hale was limited in range last season, as he went 3-for-8 on field goal attempts over 40 yards and played to their troubles in the kickoff coverage game. So, there are many areas on special teams that are exploitable for the Longhorns. Having quality field-position to start drives was something the Longhorns struggled at on a week-to-week basis last season.
Although S&P+ projects a double-digit loss for Louisiana Tech against Texas, the index gives the Bulldogs a 21% chance to win the game. This will be a nice tune-up game for the Longhorns before the LSU Tigers come to Austin.
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