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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: La. Tech (8-5, 6-1)

Boise State was gone, so somebody had to step into the void. Nevada was the preseason favorite, which made some sense, though not a tremendous amount. The Wolf Pack may have topped the Broncos in 2010, but this year’s team stepped to the plate with a fraction of the star power. If not Nevada, then Hawaii; the Warriors, winners of 10 games a year ago, were feeling the love. If not either of that pair, then Fresno State — if not now for the Bulldogs, then never. Louisiana Tech? The dark horse’s dark horse: the ignored, dismissed and overlooked conference champ.

The Bulldogs were ignored in August, to a degree. A bowl team, thought most, but little more. This was Nevada’s party; let the Wolf Pack have their day. The Bulldogs were dismissed after four losses in their first five games, even if the losses held up: by two points to Southern Mississippi, one point to Houston — should have won that game — in overtime to Mississippi State and, surprisingly, by 18 points at home to Hawaii.

Even when rolling through the WAC, the Bulldogs were overlooked. This has much to do with the WAC itself, which lacked a B.C.S. party crasher to carry the flag. That led to overwhelming underdog status heading into the Poinsettia Bowl, where the Bulldogs gave T.C.U. all it could handle in a 31-24 loss.

By the numbers, this season mirrors Louisiana Tech’s 2008 campaign, when the Bulldogs finished 8-5 under Derek Dooley. In 2007, Dooley’s debut, the Bulldogs went 5-7, scored 249 points and allowed 368. In 2008, the Bulldogs added three wins, scored 320 points and allowed 308.

In 2010, Sonny Dykes’ debut, Louisiana Tech won five games, scored 321 points and allowed 368. This fall, the Bulldogs went 8-5, scored 391 points and allowed 301. Add three wins, add 70 points and subtract 67 points? Eerie, right?

The underlying difference, of course, is the Dooley’s Bulldogs played in a top-heavy WAC: Boise State was still running the show — the Broncos beat Tech by 35 points that fall — with Nevada a distant second. For one year, Tech was the third-best team in the WAC; come 2009, the Bulldogs would drop back into irrelevance.

So what assurances does the program have that Dykes won’t fall into a similar malaise? None. And with the WAC facing a less-than-rosy future, the Bulldogs would be wise to consider everything up for grabs: Tech may be the dominant program in the WAC for years to come, but the WAC may not be around for years to come.

First doom, now gloom. Though his name was put forth in connection to open jobs at Colorado State and Houston, the latter to the point where it seemed merely a matter of time, Sonny Dykes signed a contract extension in December that should keep him in Ruston for the long haul.

The contract won’t scare teams away — a deep-pocketed suitor would do what it took — but it does indicate a blossoming relationship between Dykes and the university. The extension, which bumps his annual salary to more than $700,000 and runs through 2017, is a just reward for the program’s first WAC title in a decade.

How did Tech do it? By winning close games, winning blowouts, winning on the road and winning the one game it had to have — Nevada. More specifically, 2011 found the Bulldogs greatly improved on the offensive side of the ball, as most expected. Tech closed the regular season with five straight wins with Colby Cameron under center; he replaced an injured Nick Isham, and the rest was history.

Season grade A- Every preseason milestone was reached: bowl play, WAC title, national relevance. I think you can stamp this season as a success. But the year wasn’t perfect, not when the Bulldogs threw away three opportunities for marquee non-conference wins in September. Considering the WAC’s delicate future — and the fact that the league will be unanimously viewed as the country’s weakest — it will be vital going forward that Dykes and the Bulldogs win big games in September and early October. For now, those narrow setbacks are part of the growing process.

High point A 24-20 win over Nevada on Nov. 19, which effectively clinched the WAC. It wouldn’t become official for another Saturday, however, but don’t worry: Tech, its eyes on the prize, took New Mexico State behind the woodshed in a 44-0 laugher. The victory over Nevada provided the difference between facing T.C.U. in the Poinsettia Bowl or heading west to the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, and I don’t need to tell you how vital that was for the program.

Low point Would you rather get your heart broken or your doors blown off? Hawaii controlled the first half of its 44-26 win before sealing the deal with three successive scores in the third quarter. Southern Mississippi notched three late field goals in its 19-17 win. As noted, Mississippi State needed overtime. Houston trailed by 28 points in the third quarter. My vote goes for Houston.

Offensive M.V.P. Isham wasn’t terrible, just not ready for the job. In this case, an injury played into Tech’s hands: the Bulldogs won five straight to close the regular season with Cameron under the center, averaging a shade under 35 points per game, and averaged more than five yards per play in the Poinsettia Bowl loss. Cameron’s play was surprising, in fact, given the way he stumbled in limited duty as a sophomore. His ascension to the starting role, injury-related or no, was the turning point of Tech’s season.

Defensive M.V.P. Adrien Cole, the WAC Defensive Player of the Year. Being the most valuable defender in the entire conference typically means you’ve been your teams most valuable defender as well. Entirely justified: Cole was productive throughout, and saved his most impressive performance for the key win against Nevada.

Stock watch Louisiana Tech would rather be average in the majors than dominant the minors, meaning the program would rather annually battle for bowl eligibility in a more prestigious conference — Conference USA would qualify, amazingly — than dominate the WAC for the next half-decade. The Bulldogs can only handle those things inside their control: winning games, controlling the WAC, making a run at double-digit wins in 2012. The road is laid clear, now that Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii are due to leave for the Mountain West. Every signal points towards further offensive development next fall, which makes the Bulldogs the clear favorite in the WAC heading into the offseason.

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