by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

No one would likely imagine Louisiana Tech being one of the “Queens on the Chess Board” in the current round of conference shuffling. But what Texas A&M is to BCS conferences, the Bulldogs seem to have become for the lower-level leagues in the FBS.

Indeed, La Tech has always been something of an awkward geographical fit in the WAC, which it joined in 2001. The Bulldogs had done quite a bit of jumping around in the previous fifteen years, leaving the Southland Conference for I-AA independent status in 1987, then graduating to the I-A level in 1989. In 1993, Tech hooked up with the Big West for a three-year stint before going back to independent status in 1996. In 2001, the Bulldogs joined forced with the WAC, where they have remained since, in the process racking up frequent flyer miles that would be the envy of any business traveler.

For how long in the conference, however, remains a mystery, as Tech has been in the middle of all sorts of rumors since last year, when the WAC started to splinter. By next year, the league’s flagship programs from Boise State (which has already departed), Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii will have all moved to the Mountain West for football, with Hawaii casting its lot with the Big West for other sports. Meanwhile, the Ruston-based Bulldogs have been weighing their options. Some regional sources believe the best fit remains the Sun Belt, geographically compatible and with several potential regional rivals from which to choose. The Belt reportedly has an open invitation for Tech whenever it wants to join. The Bulldogs have also been rumored as a possible target for Conference USA, always subject to raids from bigger conferences and getting potential replacement parts, such as the Bulldogs, into the queue. Each would seem a more-likely future home than the far-flung WAC, although Tech has so far kept its allegiance to its current affiliation.

And the “Indefatigable One” himself, WAC Commissioner Karl Benson, is doing his best to keep La Tech, one of the highest-profile remaining members, in tow by expanding the conference into neighboring Texas, partly to keep the Bulldogs in the fold. With new members Texas State and UT-San Antonio, both football-playing institutions, slated to join in 2012 along with UT-Arlington, which is likely to revive its long-dormant gridiron program, suddenly the WAC does not look as bad a geographical match for Tech as it has been for the last decade. Benson is also reportedly putting the rush on North Texas to steal it away from the Sun Belt, and with the possibility of a Baylor or Iowa State looking for future landing spots should the Big XII dissolve, the WAC suddenly appears to be a player in the conference-shift game. For the moment, the Bulldogs seem satisfied that the WAC is the best option for the near future.

It is not lost on Tech AD Bruce Van De Velde that the Bulldogs could become “the next Boise” in the reconfigured WAC. Tech’s history suggests it would not be a bad candidate to assume that role, given a pedigree that includes three lower-division national championships in its history, and the spawning ground of a handful of legendary gridiron names, including QB Terry Bradhaw. Besides Bradshaw, DE Fred Dean is a Pro Football Hall-of-Fame alum, while another former Techster, OT Willie Roaf, is likely to join them soon in Canton.

Many regional sources believe 2011 could be the start of something big in Ruston, too. It’s the second season in charge for HC Sonny Dykes, whose first Bulldog team didn’t quite take flight as he imagined a year ago, with inherited personnel mostly an awkward fit for the same Air Raid offense Dykes had helped design as an assistant at Arizona and Texas Tech. Dykes went through four different QBs in a disjointed debut campaign that ended up 5-7, although erratic offensive production wasn’t the main problem last season.

Instead, to paraphrase a famous Louisianan, James Carville, “It’s the defense, stupid.”

Indeed, a quick check of the national stats from last season confirms as much. The stop (go?) unit ranked near the bottom nationally in total defense, conceding a whopping 462 yards per game, ranking 116th. Pass (ranked 99th) and rush (ranked 81st) “D” were equal-opportunity bad as the Bulldogs allowed a hefty 31 ppg, also ranking poorly (91st). And though Dykes’ expertise is on the offensive side, he knew that defensive upgrades were needed, and quickly, if Tech is going to have a chance to emerge in the post-Boise WAC.

Defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler, a holdover from the Derek Dooley era in Ruston, is likely to author some schematic changes for his stop unit that never quite adapted to the 4-2-5 alignments he introduced last season. Expect more base 4-3 looks this fall as Spangler tries to take advantage of improved depth at the LB spots.

Eight starters return on the stop unit, although help has arrived from a recruiting class that includes 12 jucos, 10 of whom were present in spring drills, and many of those JC transfers have been enlisted to fortify the stop unit. Among the most prominent of those will be thick, 300-lb. run-stuffing DT Jon’al White (already penciled into the starting lineup), DE Daniel Hayden, and LBs Chip Hester and Antonio Mitchum. White is one of a pair of new DTs, but as a run-stuffer he is not likely to help out a pass rush that could use a boost, which is where Hayden could perhaps provide an upgrade. The LB corps is filled with three senior starters, although juco Hester figures to provide more speed on the outside. Tech’s top recruit in 2009, RS soph Rufus Porter, could also figure somewhere in the mix. Spangler is also hoping for better things in the 2ndary now that former Auburn recruit Ryan Williams has been moved from LCB to free safety, where Spangler believes he can shut down action in half of the defensive backfield, rather than just a quarter of it on the edge. Former Tennessee recruit Dave Clark, apparently past knee woes, should effectively fill Williams' spot on the corner, but last year’s opponents gladly threw in the other direction, where sr. DeMarcion Evans stands only 5'8 and remains an inviting target. Whatever, the pass “D” must improve after allowing 290 yards per game last fall.

So must Dykes’ Air Raid, although most WAC observers expect the “O” to function a bit more smoothly after having a year to work the kinks out of Dykes’ new schemes, which were a radical departure from the run-oriented attack preferred by predecessor Dooley. Surprisingly, the Bulldogs were more effective with the infantry last fall, thanks mostly to Tennessee transfer Lennon Creer, who proved a revelation when slashing for 1181 YR and 5.6 yards per carry in 2010. But for the Air Raid to work as designed, it needs an effective pilot at the controls.

Junior Colby Cameron seemed to be that man after spring drills, although Dykes has thus far refrained from announcing a starter for the opener at Southern Miss on September 3. Cameron started three games at QB last fall before eventually conceding the job to more-serviceable Ross Jenkins, who has graduated. Cameron showed a much better command of the offense in spring, especially when throwing for 5 TDP in just over one half of the spring game. Mobile juco transfer Zach Griffith has Dykes interested enough to hold off on naming a starter for the moment, and some WAC observers suspect that true frosh Nick Isham, who completed 73% of his throws as a high school senior and is made for a spread offense, could be the X-factor of the group.

Overall, just five starters are back on the strike force, although one of them is the aforementioned RB Creer, whose presence will at least take some of the pressure off of the new QB. Do-everything WR/KR Philip Livas has graduated, although juco newcomer Quinton Patton emerged as legit deep threat in spring and could be a perfect complement to possession-receivers deluxe Taulib Ikharo, who caught a team-best 50 passes last season, and Richie Casey (42 catches LY). Another juco, former Michigan State recruit Myles White, has sprinter speed and could team with Patton as deep-ball threats. The OL is jumbo-sized, averaging better than 300 pounds across the two-deep, with several jucos also added for improved depth. But the concern is that the line might be too big and lacks the sort of quickness that pass protection sets require in Dykes' Air Raid.

Spread-wise, note that Joe Aillet Stadium has been a difficult venue for visiting WAC teams, perhaps exhausted by the travel connections (try booking that Moscow, Idaho-to-Ruston round trip with your travel agent); Tech is 9-3 vs. the line at home in conference action since 2008.

Summary...Tech remains the X-factor in the WAC, as many league observers suspect that Dykes has the team on the verge of a breakthrough. To do so, one of the new QBs must emerge, and the defense needs to make upgrades from a year ago, but remember that the Bulldogs weren’t that far away last season when finishing 5-7. And the presence of RB Lennon Creer should take some pressure off of QBs Cameron or Griffith. Even with Boise out of the WAC, the non-conference portion of the schedule (potential BCS Busters Southern Miss and Houston, plus SEC Ole Miss) appears difficult enough to probably limit the upside this season. But Dykes, Terry Bradshaw, and all Tech supporters will be justifiably disappointed if the Dogs don’t at least become bowl-eligible this fall.

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