USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Tinker away, Louisiana Tech.
Continue this painful transition on offense. The Bulldogs scuffled in the shift from Sonny Dykes' spread-based, pass-happy system to Skip Holtz's meat-and-potatoes style, falling to 112th nationally in scoring and tossing 15 interceptions – 10 more than in Dykes' final season despite making 85 fewer attempts.
The shift in scheme hits into overdrive in 2014: Holtz wants more power-based, fullback-first, four-yards-on-first-down toughness; let's hope this doesn't turn into run-run-incomplete, the snake eyes of offensive play-calling.
Begin anew on defense. The only defensive holdover from Holtz's debut staff is secondary coach and special teams coordinator Ronnie Bradford; this isn't surprising, given how Tech's secondary, an off-off-and-on strength last fall, has the makings of a terrific group in 2014. But check out the new guys: Manny Diaz as coordinator, Blake Baker with the safeties and Oscar Giles – that longtime Mack Brown assistant – along the defensive line.
Corral all the help you can. Holtz signed JUCO stars at two positions of great need – offensive line, receiver – and went the transfer route at defensive end and quarterback, potentially providing a massive upgrade at each spot.
Tinkering with the base product is one way to reverse last year's slide, the drop from nine wins and the Bowl Championship Series conversation – yes, those days did exist – to four wins, lingering in the lower portion of Conference USA. But will these change alone change Tech's trajectory?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
In addition, it's important that Tech go at least 2-3 in September before turning to the heart of Conference USA play. So what's the big-picture story? This is a team with issues, obviously, but one with the talent and the schedule to win seven games in the regular season and make a trip back to the postseason.
In a nutshell: A dismal year, all things considered, defined by offensive incompetence, defensive lags and a handful of losses against extremely beatable opposition – Kansas, Army, Tulsa and the like. It's hard to ignore the striking decline on offense: Tech scored more than 30 points only twice, both times in victory, and never recaptured the sort of pass-run balance inherent to Dykes' friendly scheme. Well, Dykes is gone; it's time to move on … with one last word: Holtz's group lacked juice. That's a kind way of saying energy was lacking, pretty much, and it can be painful to watch a juice-deprived team plod and slog its way through a disappointing season.
High point: All three wins against Football Bowl Subdivision competition came in a four-game span: UTEP, Florida International and Southern Mississippi. Four wins among the group, but let's not split hairs.
Low point: Each loss worse than the last, from Tulane to Kansas – the Jayhawks snapped a 22-game FBS losing streak – to Army.
Tidbit: Tech was one of 11 teams to enter last season with zero career starts at quarterback on the FBS level. This wasn't an issue for two teams in particular: Florida State won the national championship, if you can recall, and Baylor took home the Big 12. Of the remaining nine teams, six reached bowl eligibility: Central Michigan, Georgia Tech, Iowa, Penn State, Syracuse and Texas Tech. But this lack of experience came up and bit the remaining trio: Tech went 4-8, Virginia went 2-10 and Dykes-led California went 1-11.
Tidbit (did you know edition): Louisiana Tech has won 25 conference championships, the 10th-most among FBS programs. Most of these titles came in the Gulf States Conference, but again, let's not split hairs. The complete top 10: Nebraska (43 conference titles), Oklahoma (43), Michigan (42), USC (38), Ohio State (37), Tulsa (35), Rutgers (32), Texas (29), Alabama (27) and Tech.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Current FBS coaches as TV analysts
1. Nick Saban
2. Urban Meyer
3. James Franklin
4. Brian Kelly
5. Les Miles
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: A pecking order settled at the conclusion of spring drills – and settled further after Scotty Young opted to leave a final season of eligibility on the table – enters a new phase of competition with the addition of Iowa transfer Cody Sokol, a pass-first senior with the arm strength and passing bona fides to vault ahead of sophomore Ryan Higgins during fall camp. Higgins' greatest advantage might be his time in this system: He started seven games as a redshirt freshman, failing to impress in any way, shape or form but – and this is always the silver lining – developing enough of a game-day rhythm to project a degree of improvement as a second-year starter. And so we've arrived at the crux of the issue.
Holtz and Louisiana Tech could afford to hand Higgins the starting job had the Bulldogs won six games last fall, for instance. That's clearly not the case: Tech needs to win now, today, and wouldn't have rolled out a spot for Sokol had the staff not felt two spine-crushing pressures – winning now and landing an immediate, one-year upgrade at the position. To me, that theory puts Sokol in the driver's seat heading into August. For one, he's already flashed an ability to move the sticks through the air: Sokol was a prolific JUCO quarterback before enrolling at Iowa, and very nearly secured the starting job last fall as the Hawkeyes entered summer conditioning. His pocket presence and poise could mean the difference. Now, it's too early to write off Higgins; he's stronger, leading to improved arm strength, and if only by virtue of his remaining eligibility provides a better long-term option under center. But if Tech needs to win today – and it does – Sokol will be given every chance at starting the opener.
In this specific case – and in few others nationally – losing four of last season's top six receivers should yield a vastly improved on-field product. One reason has to do with a better fit of scheme and personnel: Holtz has successfully added a number of bigger receivers who fit Tech's offensive approach, lending size to last year's mismatched and misused grouping. In short, I see Tech's receiver corps as having the potential to be among the most improving positions in Conference USA – and all the better, since Sokol could be the triggerman needed to stretch the field. Let's roll off the key names: Sterling Griffin (33 receptions for 357 yards) is the leader, with room for statistical growth as he enters his second year in the system; LSU transfer Paul Turner is a difference-making talent; redshirt freshman Carlos Henderson might be the quickest receiver on the roster, but not at the expense of diminutive size; JUCO transfer Sanford Seay should make his mark from the start; senior Eddie Johnson has the frame to bully smaller defensive backs and the athleticism to outmaneuver linebackers; and senior Hunter Lee (16 for 191) and sophomore Trent Taylor (28 for 260) can provide that little-guy spark in the slot. Lose four of your top six and improve? Absolutely.
The Bulldogs are at their best in the backfield. You know the names: Kenneth Dixon (917 yards) is a machine, Blake Martin (267 yards) is a valuable reserve and Tevin King (539 yards) is a potential game-changer in a change-of-pace role. The only concern is how well this group fits into Holtz's power vision; they'll produce in any scheme, but Dixon and King need to run with a different purpose than in Dykes' spread system. The results will be there – Dixon is a 1,000-yard back, King is explosive – but the Bulldogs need more consistency from their talented backfield.
Defense: Diaz is nothing if not the king of quick-twitch reclamation projects: Middle Tennessee State, Mississippi State and Texas took enormous first-year strides under his direction, though Texas – where he was scapegoated – did suffer a decline after an immediate breakthrough. Diaz inherits a defense already defined by its aggressiveness, making this a perfect fit in mentality, but he and Giles will be tasked with retooling a front ravaged by graduation. This is the certainly the case inside: Tech will replace Shakeil Lucas and Justin Ellis with juniors Vernon Butler (43 tackles) and Malcolm Pichon and seniors Devon McKinney and DeAngelo Brooks, crossing their fingers that this quartet can beef up a disappointingly ineffective run defense.
This could work. Butler is an all-conference contender, for one, and Pichon has the frame to produce at a high clip if used correctly – as a guy who can occupy blocks on early downs. When healthy, Brooks combines size and a quick initial burst to provide some disruptiveness in the backfield; his key will be ramping up this aggressiveness when in a full-time role, which is a question mark. While the Bulldogs are new on the edges, don't sleep on this duo: Houston Bates comes over from Illinois, where he held down the Illini's hybrid end-linebacker role, and has the skill set to absolutely dominate Conference USA tackles, and junior Vontarrius Dora (31 tackles, 6.5 for loss) is a defender I thought should have earned far more playing time a season ago. Add seniors Andre Taylor and Kevin Kisseberth – solid reserves, but not starters – and the end position is steady with the potential to be a terrific surprise. The jury's out on this group, but don't sleep on the overall talent.
The second level remains intact with the exception of Daniel Cobb, the former Texas Tech transfer, but the many holdovers must acclimate themselves to the shift from the 4-2-5 to Diaz's preferred 4-3 base set – and let's remember that this experience in the unorthodox system should allow the Bulldogs to be multiple defensively. I don't think it'll be an overly painful transition should senior Tony Johnson (23 tackles) take care of business in the middle; Tech has speed on the edges in seniors Mitch Villemez (69 tackles) and Terrell Pinson (28 tackles), the latter moving down from a hybrid nickel role, so a sturdy Johnson in the middle could sew up the Bulldogs' interior run defense. If Diaz so chose, he could create a package where Pinson floats back as a fifth defensive back and junior Beau Fitte (45 tackles) moves into a spot on the outside.
Diaz's biggest impact may be felt in the secondary, where his ability to dial up pressure from the front seven may aid a group with a penchant for making plays on the football. In addition, the Bulldogs have a very good problem: Tech has too many options for too few spots. That's why you see senior safety Thomas McDonald (70 tackles, 3 interceptions) battling for a starting job with sophomore Lloyd Grogan, who even exited the spring atop the two-deep; it's also why two of cornerbacks Adairius Barnes (49 tackles, 4 interceptions), Bryson Abraham, Le'Vander Liggins (45 tackles) and Jabarri Prewitt will be left out in the cold. But isn't this a great thing? Bradford and Diaz have the luxury of holding four solid cornerbacks and at least three steady safeties, and of such depth electric secondary play is born. Add in Diaz's aggressive blitz schemes and Tech may be onto something.
Special teams: Punter Logan McPherson won't flip field position with his leg, but the sophomore is adept at pinning opponents inside their own red zone. Every yard counts. Junior Kyle Fischer is fine at kicker, if not trustworthy enough for my taste. Tech is middling in coverage and the return game. Not good by any means, but not cripplingly terrible.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: Don't ever suggest that line coach Matt Moore doesn't earn his paycheck. Last summer, Moore was tasked with replacing four starters on one of the nation's most unheralded offensive fronts; one year later, Moore must replace a trio of starters while blending in six newcomers, three from the JUCO ranks. Begin with the two sure things: Tech returns senior left guard Tre Carter and senior right tackle Mitchell Bell, the two anchors along a reworked unit. The Bulldogs also bring back senior Jens Danielsen, an undersized option on the strong side but a valuable swing option between both tackle spots. Now, let's try to tackle Moore's options at the three spots left vacant following last season. One stands out as a no-brainer: Darrell Brown will get the nod at left tackle after spending his freshman campaign behind Jeremy Graffree, and I see this as an immediate wash but an immense long-term upgrade. I imagine the makeup at center and right guard will be impacted greatly by the JUCO transfers; one addition, Kirby Wixson, has already pushed senior Richard Greenwalt for the job at guard. Fellow newcomers David Mahaffey and Blake Sharp have to be considered at both interior positions, though sophomore Joseph Brunson held the starting job at center exiting spring drills.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
North Texas: Buckle up. Tech's September: at Oklahoma, at Louisiana-Lafayette, at North Texas, home for Northwestern State, at Auburn. It doesn't get much worse than that. But a team that leaves that month with two wins – or three, but let's not get greedy – should have what it takes to make a postseason push during the second half. Northwestern State's a win, but the Bulldogs really need to knock off the Mean Green on the road – giving that head-to-head tiebreaker in the West Division, for one, while ensuring that the season doesn't run off the rails before the calendar heads to October.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: There are some things here that need fixing. The good news is that I can partially convince myself that Holtz and Louisiana Tech have what it takes to get it done. Take the offense, for one, where Sokol can provide the balance this system needs to take pressure of a vanilla running game; a proven ability to stretch the field – possible given the upgraded receiver corps – could vastly improve Tech's ability to find explosiveness between the tackles. On defense, Diaz provides an immediate upgrade in style and approach; this will translate itself into improved production should the new-look line cooperate. As such, I'm nearly able to convince myself that this team is destined for a two-win improvement.
I can't go all the way. The offense remains stuck in neutral, and will remain in place until Sokol or Higgins lends a different dimension with the passing game. The offensive line may match last year's production – but the issue is that Tech needs drastic improvement across the board up front. On defense, any growing pains along the line could have a trickle-down effect, one that forces Diaz to play it safe while negating the secondary's ability to control the back end of the field. Don't delude yourself into thinking this team is a complete package: Tech has much, much to prove.
But let's buy low. The team is clearly better, beginning on offense – better quarterback, receiver corps, perhaps line – and extending to the defense. If Holtz can get this house in order, the Bulldogs have the second-half schedule needed to charge to six wins in November. In terms of nuts and bolts, five factors will decide Tech's season: one, finding a second win in September; two, cementing a pass rush from the front seven; three, whether Sokol or Higgins can step forward; four, the team's overall conditioning level; and five, the Bulldogs' overall energy level – sorely lacking a season ago. Let's play it safe and call the Bulldogs a borderline bowl team. I don't think the situation is as dire as it might seem at first blush.
Dream season: Louisiana Tech charges to the top of the West Division, fending off UTSA, Rice and North Texas to reach the Conference USA title game.
Nightmare season: The Bulldogs match last year's mark with a four-win finish, notching wins against Northwestern State, UTEP, UAB and Old Dominion.
Who's No. 79? Only once in the last century has this program won at least eight games in back-to-back years. During this two-year span, each of these program's losses came against teams whose name began with the same letter of the alphabet.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014