Opening a season with a home game against a cash-strapped, middle-to-bottom tier G5 program with a brand new first-time head coach? Heck yes sign me up!
There are two types of philosophies when building a non-conference schedule for college football: scheduling for interest and scheduling for wins.
When you’ve been recruiting and winning at a high enough level for a long enough time and are looking to compete for Playoff spots then I would absolutely insist on scheduling for interest! Alabama plays other blue bloods from other conferences, Georgia has played Clemson, Ohio State has played Texas and Oregon, etc. Elite teams play higher caliber teams because they feel confident they can win them and – a few, noticeable games aside – they tend to win those games.
When you’re building a program – or are stuck in the toughest conference in the sport – then I would absolutely insist on scheduling for wins. Baylor did this in the late-aughts and early teens, lining up the worst FCS teams possible and scooping up the dregs of the G5 to find easy wins and, yes, it worked! It allowed them to put 4 wins in the bag easily and then only have to win two conference games to get to a bowl game. That approach helped them become more relevant, helped land some higher-end talent, and build a fun, offensive-minded juggernaut that has maintained the nouveau-riche reputation for over a decade now and firmly entrenched itself in the upper-middle class sector of college football over their last three hires.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m firmly in favor of Missouri copying the Baylor model for now. And this game is a great example of such an approach.
To put it bluntly: Louisiana Tech sucks. To expand slightly: in their best years they are a middling program stuck in the worst conference in the country with poor funding and a constant challenge of having to do more with less, even compared to their peers. Here is a graphical representation of Louisiana Tech’s SP+ performance since 2005:
Over the past 17 years the Bulldogs have performed better than an average football team five times, and only two of those instances were a quality of team that performed more than two points better than an average college football team. On paper their best season was the 2015 squad that was 8.3 points better than average and went 9-4. On the field their best season was the 10-win season of 2019 or maybe the 8-win 2011 season when they won the zombified WAC conference championship or even the 2014 squad that won 9 games and the West Division of Conference USA.
See, the thing about Louisiana Tech is that, yes, they suck, but so does their competition. This isn’t a Boise State situation where they’re beating the stuffing out of inferior teams while being of the same caliber of a P5 team. No, LaTech is bad and is sometimes less bad than their peers and can capitalize.
The Bulldogs have had some high-profile coaches in their past: Derek Dooley turned the aforementioned conference championship into the Tennessee gig, air-raid aficionado Sonny Dykes had a brief stint in Ruston, and even former Miami Hurricane head coach (and elite-level defensive coordinator) Manny Diaz had a one-year stay as LaTech’s DC. Skip Holtz had been at the helm since 2013 and had seemingly done enough to continue to stick around and hit a few 8 or 9-win seasons amid 6 or 7-win interludes but a middling 5-5 2020 season followed by 2021’s implosion was finally enough to get fired:
Here’s what Louisiana Tech did last year:
In Louisiana Tech’s first five games – three of which were against Top 50 competition! – the Bulldogs went 2-3 with five one score games and a score differential of 0: yes, their opponents scored 167 points and LTU scored 167 points. Wild!
Over their last seven games – five of which were against opponents ranked 90th or worse – the Bulldogs went 1-6 with zero one score games and a score differential of -72: opponents scored 241 points, LTU scored 169. Whoops.
Needless to say, that sort of performance is one that will get you fired, especially after nine seasons with diminishing returns. So LaTech went out and got themselves a new coach, one without much experience outside the state of Texas but plenty of experience of running up-tempo offenses and putting up lots of points.
Sonny Cumbie – 1st Year – 0-0 (0-0)
For those readers who are my age or older and vividly remember the Big XII-era of Missouri football, the name Sonny Cumbie might ring a bell. Above is a picture of Coach Cumbie during his stint at Texas Christian…but while you might remember his coaching tenure there or at Texas Tech here’s the Cumbie career that I remember the best:
Cumbie walked on to Mike Leach’s thriving air raid attack at Texas Tech and was the 3rd-string signal caller behind Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons. In 2004 Cumbie became QB1 and, much like his predecessors, lead the nation in passing yards and total offense while leading his #23 Red Raiders to a post-season victory over fourth-ranked Cal (with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback). After graduating he had a brief tryout with the Indianapolis Colts before becoming a starter for the Los Angeles Avengers in the Arena Football League. Obviously a career like that lends itself to a diversion to coaching and Cumbie returned to his alma mater to begin his career as a graduate assistant. With his deep roots in Texas state football and a masters-level knowledge of the Leachian Air Raid he has almost exclusively coached that style of offense at both Tech and TCU with varying rates of success. After failing to salvage Matt Wells’ tenure in Lubbock, Cumbie served as the interim head coach for the rest of the 2021 season and turned that audition into the head chair at Ruston, Louisiana.
Jake Brown & Scott Parr – Co-Offensive Coordinators: Brown coaches the wide receivers, Parr coaches the tight ends, and, with their powers combined, they form the Captain Planet known as Louisiana Tech’s offensive coordinator. Both overlapped with Cumbie’s coaching tenure at Texas Tech with each serving as various flavors of graduate assistant while Cumbie was a position coach. Brown ended up grabbing a GA gig with Cumbie at TCU while Parr obtained a coordinating position for Navarro Junior College, eventually leading them to a conference title as a head coach. Both are Texas guys through and through and have experience working with Cumbie’s system so they know what they’re doing. The question is can they get the pieces they have to function properly.
Scott Power – Defensive Coordinator: Power comes to Tech from FCS powerhouse Stephen F. Austin with a reputation as an great recruiter and elite defensive coordinator. His Lumberjack defenses finished in the Top 20 of every statistical category imaginable over his tenure while the recruiting classes were Top 5 in the country over the past two years. The reputation is certainly there but, if Cumbie and Co. stick to their air raid roots, it’ll be the first time Power has had his defense paired with an offense of that speed.
Dan Sharp – Special Teams Coordinator
Peter Hopkins – Running Backs
Nathan Young – Offensive Line
Casey Walker – Defensive Line
Anthony Camp – Outside Linebackers
Marcus Walker – Cornerbacks
Paul Turner – Safeties
When you are the 93rd-best offense in the country there isn’t a long list of things that you do well. The Bulldogs were decent at executing in passing downs, ranking 44th in the country in success rate in situations that were 2nd-and-8+, 3rd-and-5+, and 4th-and-5+. And they were Top 30 in explosive plays in standard downs which isn’t too shabby. But the simplest explanation is that the 2021 offense was just really bad: 114th in rushing success rate, 107th in rushing explosiveness, 73rd in passing success rate, 53rd in passing explosiveness, and one of the worst offenses in the country when executing in standard downs…ya know, the downs where the offense has a natural advantage over the defense (they ranked 111th). Simply put, they couldn’t keep up with the chains, couldn’t create any big plays in obvious passing situations, couldn’t convert their 3rd downs, and couldn’t finish drives (101st). So while losing every quarterback on last year’s roster, the starting running back, and two of their best offensive linemen isn’t great…well, neither was this offense. Plus, with four of last year’s most experienced linemen returning, the top three receiving targets returning, and an install of a brand new offensive system coming down the pipe, there’s certainly not a different concern than last year. Instead, it’s merely an acceptance that, yes, they will be bad but HEY there’s at least the potential of something good happening!
Quarterback – Matthew Downing – Redshirt Senior
On November 10th TCU’s 3rd-string Quarterback, Matthew Downing, entered the transfer portal as the Horned Frogs limped toward a disappointing season finish. Eighteen days after Sonny Cumbie officially became head coach of the Bulldogs, Downing transferred to Ruston to reunite with his old OC and finish his college career. And its a good thing he did! LaTech’s nominal starter for 2021 – former Oklahoma/West Virginia transfer Austin Kendall – ran out of eligibility while backups J.D. Head and Aaron Allen transferred to North Texas and Alcorn State, respectively. In fact, other than local 3-star freshman Landry Lyddy, and non-scholarship transfer Parker McNeil, there are no other quarterbacks on the Bulldog roster and, of course, Downing – with his 9 games and 44 passes thrown – is the most experienced of the bunch. Not great! The plan, then, is seemingly for Downing to use his experience in the Cumbie system to be the starter for at least this year and hope a younger guy can take the reigns in ‘23 or ‘24. Downing hasn’t been super impressive but also hasn’t been given much of a shot. How he guides this offense in the install and control of the scheme will be important to the overall growth of this unit.
Running Back – Greg Garner – Redshirt Senior
2021’s backup running back was second on the team in carries (54) and third in yards (216) and will probably be the Bulldogs new go-to guy on the ground. Louisiana Tech was absolutely terrible when trying to run and Garner certainly didn’t help change that; 4.0 yards per carry, 4.4 yard running off tackle, 3.7 running inside, and averaging a dreadful 1.7 yards before contact and 2.3 after contact. Incoming freshman DeAnthony Gatson certainly has a chance to break into the rotation early if he’s able because the options in front of him certainly didn’t do much in ‘21.
Wide Receiver – Smoke Harris – Redshirt Junior
The “strength” of this offense was the passing game and, as previously mentioned, the Bulldogs return their top three receivers but lose the remainder of their top seven targeted receivers. Tech wasn’t super creative in their passing game either; the wideouts either ran a vertical “9” route or a hook route (which looks similar to a vertical route but then you stop, turn, and catch the ball) and hoped they could break one of those free for a score. Cumbie will certainly be looked to adding some more creativity to the passing tree while upgrading the talent with local 3-star talents O’Ryan James and Keshlon Jackson. The Bulldogs also added former blue-chip LSU athlete Devonta Lee to the wide receiver room; while he was only targeted 16 times over the 96 routes he ran in LSU’s ‘21 season the athleticism boost will be welcomed…assuming he can iron out his dreadful drop problem (12% drop rate YIKES).
As bad as the Louisiana Tech offense was last year the defense was somehow worse, finishing at 112th (and, remember, your Missouri Tiger defense finished at 97th after spending most of the year in the 120s). Lead by former Mizzou linebacker Trey Baldwin, the Bulldogs would give up yards early (91st in success rate), allow teams to break off explosive plays (83rd), be incapable at creating havoc (93rd) and allow teams to finish drives with touchdowns way more often than not (102nd). And while most of an undisruptive defensive line returns in ‘22, nearly ever linebacker and most of the secondary is getting a hard reboot. Again, that might not be a bad thing but there’s going to be a lot of new-ness to break-in on this side of the ball.
Defensive Line – Deshon Hall – Junior
Deshon Hall might have been the best defender the Bulldogs had last year, and certainly the best defensive lineman. He finished with 52 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 8 run stuffs, 2.5 sacks, and created pressure on the quarterback for nearly 10% of his rushes. The entire line is back but Hall was the most important one and his ability to notch a few more sacks while keeping up that great pressure rate will be key.
Linebacker – Tyler Grubbs – Sophomore
Grubbs played nearly ever snap and logged 88 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 16 run stuffs, and 2 sacks on a mere 7 blitzes he was sent on. He could potentially be a bigger piece of the LaTech defense given the small sample size efficiency in the pass rushing department but, regardless, will be the most proven and experienced linebacker in a group that loses a lot of production. Incoming 3-star Zy Ford could certainly see some opportunities here.
Defensive Back – Bee Jay Williamson – Sophomore
Fun fact: the 2021 Louisiana Tech defense had 9 interceptions and 3 of them came courtesy of this guy. He also threw in 43 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 passes broken up, a forced fumble, and 2 run stuffs just for fun. However, he is just one guy and will be missing Cedric Woods and Baylen Buchanan as battery mates in ‘22. I’ve covered how important experience in the secondary is for an overall defense enough by now that you should know losing starters in this group is bad news for the Bulldogs (and good news for Mizzou!).
So what does it all mean?
I say it every year: you can’t win them all unless you win the first one. Except, this time, instead of staring down the barrel of an Alabama juggernaut or a feisty Central Michigan squad, Missouri actually opens up with a totally winnable game in the Eli Drinkwitz era! I’m not saying it’s going to be some 50-0 blowout but Missouri will be favored to win and should win comfortably.
But even if the game is tight or the Tigers look lost at times…oh well. Games like this help your team get into the groove of practice, prep, and playing as a team. At the end of the day it’s not how much you won by but that you won in the first place. Style points will come once the rebuild is complete; for now, just get the W.