RUSTON, La. – In a season of dramatic transition for Louisiana Tech, the one thing the Bulldogs don't want to change is the win total.
Skip Holtz takes over for former coach Sonny Dykes, who left for California after leading Louisiana Tech to a school-record-tying nine wins at the FBS level. The Bulldogs also joined a new league __ Conference USA __ after the dissolution of the Western Athletic Conference.
Louisiana Tech returns only three starters on offense and four on defense, but regardless of the personnel, Holtz will operate differently than Dykes.
The new regime will emphasize defense more.
Last year, the Bulldogs placed third in the WAC despite having a hurry-up spread offense that that produced 4,178 yards passing and a nation-leading 51.5 points per game behind former quarterback Colby Cameron.
Now as Tech switches leagues, Holtz sees good defense and a time-of-possession advantage as keys to finishing on top.
"If you look at Conference USA," Holtz noted, "four of the last five winners have led the league in defense."
Here are five things to watch in Holtz's first year with Louisiana Tech:
1. SLOWING IT DOWN: Dykes' hyper-speed, no-huddle offense was fun to watch, but Holtz believes it adversely affected Louisiana Tech's defense, which gave up 38.5 points per game and allowed more than 600 yards in end-of-the-season losses to Utah State and San Jose State. He will use the hurry-up at times and a conventional approach at others. "We have to protect the defense," he said. "There are a lot of advantages to running the up-tempo offense, but it puts a lot of stress on the defense. It's not about how many points we can score. It's about outscoring the opponent."
2. MORE RUNNING: Running back is Louisiana Tech's strongest position, so look for Holtz to lean on the ground game. Kenneth Dixon rushed for 1,194 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012, and Tevin King had 352 yards through two games before a season-ending knee injury. With the quarterback situation uncertain, the Bulldogs figure to run more than throw.
3. SCORING PACE: The Bulldogs pinball-like offensive numbers last year probably won't be seen at Tech again for a while. The Bulldogs scored 40 or more points in 11 of 12 games. Holtz' South Florida teams scored 40 or more three times in three years from 2010-2012 and only once against a FBS foe. Given his philosophy and the lack of experience he inherited, an average in the 20s is more realistic.
4. GROWING PAINS: The Bulldogs are undergoing too much transition to match last year's success. Projections have them finishing third in Conference USA West behind Tulsa and Rice. They can earn one of the league's six bowl bids if Texas Tech transfer Scotty Young has a big year at quarterback. Without a solid year from Young or redshirt freshman Ryan Higgins, the other contender for the starting job, Louisiana Tech could struggle to finish .500.
5. EMERGING ELLIS: Defensive tackle Justin Ellis, a senior, is a preseason first-team All-Conference USA selection. He'll need to live up to those lofty expectations and carry a defense that struggled to stop teams all year in 2012 and returns only three other starters. Conference USA is not loaded with physical players. If Ellis (6-feet-2, 330 pounds) controls the middle of the line, Louisiana Tech can force teams to beat it on the edge and give itself a much better chance to challenge for the West title.
Predicted finish in Conference USA: Third in the West Division.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/