Today we turn our attention to K-State's third and final non-conference game, when the Cats play host to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs on September 19. Some of you might recognize Tech as the team that broke KU's 22-game FBS losing streak back in 2013. But don't let that fool you. Two years can be a long time in college football, and Skip Holtz's boys look to be on the ascendancy.
Louisiana Tech makes its home in Ruston, Louisiana, a town of around 20,000 inhabitants that lies 250 miles east of Dallas. The school was founded in 1894 and was known by a few different names before settling on Louisiana Tech University in 1970. The current student population is around 11,000, with 90% of those being from in-state.
Tech started playing football in 1901, and have played in the upper division of college football since 1989. They spent their early years in Division I-A as either an Independent or in the Big West Conference, before joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2001. The latest round of conference realignment saw the team move to their current home, Conference USA, in 2013.
In terms of collecting hardware, the school's glory days came in the early-to-mid 1970s. Tech claims three NCAA Division II National Championships from that span, coming consecutively from 1972-1974. Since their move to highest level of college football, the Bulldogs have earned two conference championships, winning in the WAC in 2001 and 2011. They've managed only five bowl appearances in that span, but the program appears to be on the upswing, having posted winning seasons in three of the last four years.
In their second year under head coach Skip Holtz, the Bulldogs went 9-5 and won the Western division of C-USA. This marked a substantial improvement over their 4-8 2013 campaign. Most of their losses came early in the season, during the non-conference schedule. These included very understandable road losses against Oklahoma and Auburn. On the less explainable side was a head-scratching loss to Northwestern State, a very average FCS squad.
While they may have struggled out of conference, Tech's performance during conference season was impressive. Not only did they win, but they won big. In fact, eight of Tech nine victories on the year came by two-score margins or higher. Despite a late-season overtime loss to FBS-newcomer Old Dominion, the Bulldogs would represent the Western division in the C-USA championship. They lost that game to Marshall by a field goal, but finished the year on a high note with a 35-18 victory over Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
In the end, 2014 was a strong season for Louisiana Tech. Over at Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly's F/+ ranked the Bulldogs as the 35th best team in all of FBS. More impressive was the Bulldogs' defense, which rated number 24 in the S&P+.
So what should we look for in 2015? For one thing, expect some changes on the defensive side of the ball. Coordiantor Manny Diaz, whom Holtz brought on last year to build a more aggressive defense, was good enough in 2014 to get hired away by Mississippi State (the same job he held before moving to Texas in 2011). His replacement is Blake Baker, who was on staff last year as the safeties coach. This is Baker's first college coordinator job, and his resume to this point is fairly short: in addition to last year's work in Ruston, he was a position coach for Arkansas State in 2013, and spent 2010-2012 as a graduate assistant at Texas.
On the field, Louisiana Tech will need to deal with even more turnover, especially up front. All-Conference defensive end Houston Bates (10 sacks and 16 TFLs last year) is gone, along with four other heavy-rotation guys on the line. Measuring by total tackles, the Bulldogs are losing their top three linebackers from last year as well.
The secondary, however, remains mostly intact. All-Conference cornerback Le'Vander Liggins has graduated, but safties Kentrell Brice and Xavier Woods, last year's leading and second-leading tacklers, are still on the roster. Also returning is cornerback Adairius Barnes, who pulled in five interceptions last season. This should be the team's strongest unit going into 2015.
There are fewer holes in need of patching on the offensive side of the ball, though Tech needs to replace their quarterback and two starters on the offensive line. The biggest loss here is right tackle Mitchell Bell, who was an All-Conference first-team performer last season per numerous outlets.
The Bulldogs look set at the skill positions, though. The star is Senior running back Kenneth Dixon, who managed 1299 yards (on 5.1 yards per carry) and 22 touchdowns on the ground last year, as well as 385 yards and 6 touchdowns catching passes out of the backfield. On the outside, three of the Bulldogs' top four receivers return, including leading receiver Trent Taylor (64 catches, 834 yards, 9 touchdowns).
Clearly, whoever ends up at quarterback will have some weapons around him. But who will be taking the snaps when the season begins? It might be Junior Ryan Higgins, who played extensively as a Freshman in 2013 but was passed over last year by Iowa transfer Cody Sokol. Or it could be incoming transfer Jeff Driskel, who you might know as the on-again, off-again quarterback at Florida over the past three seasons. Driskel arrived in Gainesville as a Freshman with significant hype, but injuries and inconsistent play held him back. A fresh start in Ruston could allow him to flourish. Then again, K-State fans don't need to look too far (i.e. Lawrence) for examples of high-profile quarterback transfers that didn't pan out.
On special teams, Louisiana Tech returns their starting punter and their two dueling placekickers, Kyle Fischer and Jonathan Barnes. Also returning from 2014 are the Bulldogs' two most experienced return men, Carlos Henderson and the aforementioned Taylor. No one here was a real standout last season, but none appear to be liabilities either. We can expect consistent performances from this group in 2015.
Louisiana Tech largely handled their in-conference competition last season, and with the returning talent I see no reason why that should change. The Bulldogs should be among the favorites in Conference USA this season.
But that's not what you're here for. What should we expect from the game in Manhattan? After opening the season with South Dakota and UTSA, Louisiana Tech should represent the first challenge of year for the Wildcats. Given the ways of our coaching staff, that means we'll still know very little about the team by the time the Bulldogs roll into town. On the other hand, after Tech's season opener against Southern, they'll meet with C-USA co-favorite Western Kentucky on Thursday, September 10. This is an important game for the Bulldogs, and it ought to give us a good glimpse as to what they're capable of.
In most reasonable scenarios, the Wildcats go into this game as clear favorites. That being said, Tech has knocked off Power-5 competitors in the recent past, with last season's bowl victory along with wins in 2012 against Illinois (again) and Virginia. So, expect the good guys to pull this one out, but I wouldn't expect it to be easy.
Next week, we dive headlong into the Big 12 portion of the schedule, as KSUEMAW! breaks down Oklahoma State.