HUNTINGTON — The 2018 season was a 'good news, bad news' scenario for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
The offense was not nearly as potent as it had been in recent years, but the defense took a step forward, which kept Louisiana Tech in line with the consistency it has normally experienced under head coach Skip Holtz during his tenure.
Given that many offensive pieces are back for 2019, there is reason to believe that Louisiana Tech is among what should be a three-team logjam — and possibly four, if Southern Miss finds offense — at the top of Conference USA's West Division.
For now, we'll assume that Southern Miss won't elevate its offense to the level of contending with North Texas, UAB and Louisiana Tech, making the Bulldogs a major player in the Conference USA race.
Whether Louisiana Tech makes a play toward a division title remains to be seen, but the Bulldogs will be a definite player, no matter whether it is their involvement or that of others, thanks to one of Conference USA's toughest schedules.
In addition to the power-packed West Division competition, Louisiana Tech faces FIU and Marshall in crossover competition within C-USA.
November is the key piece to the entire equation. In a 14-day stretch, Louisiana Tech hosts North Texas and travels to Marshall and UAB. That stretch will dictate the who's who of C-USA.
For the Bulldogs to contend, the offense has to produce at a better clip than what it did one year ago.
Quarterback J'Mar Smith returns, along with nearly all of his top pass-catchers, including Adrian Hardy (75 catches, 1,145 yards, 6 TDs) who headlines the group. However, down-field capability has to improve for the Bulldogs to open up offensively.
In years past, Holtz has relied on the strength of a rushing attack (Kenneth Dixon, to name one), but the shift to more of an aerial attack came in 2018 with mixed results.
Much of that had to do with a mediocre offensive front that didn't open many holes or let deep routes develop down-field, which led to the lack of big plays in the passing game. Instead, staying ahead of the chains on first or second down and short, intermediate passing by Smith was the team's ticket.
The middle of the offensive front should be solid as returnees, which could bolster the rushing attack, but incorporating new protectors for Smith is one of the big question marks heading into the 2019 season.
Just as the offensive front is replacing two of its main pieces, the defensive front - and defense, altogether - replaces its top piece in defensive end Jaylon Ferguson. Ferguson was taken in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens, so the Bulldogs need a new star to emerge. Willie Baker is expected to be the man that fills that void, which is a large one to fill. Another big question is whether Baker can step up and create at the end spot without having a standout to garner the majority of the attention.
Baker's numbers were tough last year (33 tackles, seven sacks), but lots of production came with teams doubling Ferguson on the opposite side, which left him in advantageous situations.
While Baker's production is a question mark, two players behind him - cornerback Amik Robertson and linebacker Collin Scott - are some of the better players in C-USA.
Robertson plays miles above his 5-foot-9 frame, using speed and great ball skills to outwork opposing receivers. He finished with 61 tackles and four interceptions while adding 7.5 tackles for loss in 2018.
Scott had 87 tackles with 9.5 for loss, including four sacks, last season. However, in the Dime scheme that the Bulldogs incorporate, Scott has to be better against the run at the line of scrimmage for the defense to see success.
If the defense can do a better job against the run and turn 3rd-and-4 into 3rd-and-6 or 7 in 2019, it will play into the hands of a stellar defensive backfield that pairs Robertson with fellow cornerback L'Jarius Sneed and safety James Jackson.
Given that the matchups with FIU and Southern Miss each come at home, Louisiana Tech could feasibly be 7-1 as they start the brutal November stretch against North Texas, Marshall and UAB. However, the season's success will be lumped into those three weeks.
On paper, Louisiana Tech will put plenty of fear in all opponents in 2019, but those weeks will be the tell-tale sign of whether the Bulldogs' bark is worse than its bite.