RUSTON, La. (AP) For Louisiana Tech safety Secdrick Cooper and fellow seniors, there is an urgency to finally capture a prize that has narrowly eluded them.
''My main goal for this season is to help this team bring the conference championship because, you know, I've been there the last three years and just getting so far and just not completing the mission, it just hurts so bad,'' Cooper said. ''I just want that so bad.''
The Bulldogs have won three consecutive bowl games, but have come up short in the Conference USA title race, losing in the league's championship game twice - first to Marshall in 2014 and then Western Kentucky last season.
Coach Skip Holtz's team is expected to contend again, having been forecast for a first-place finish in the Conference USA West Division in the league's preseason poll.
But Holtz says the ''sting and pain'' of C-USA championship game losses drives the Bulldogs more than any preseason predictions.
''It's always one of the things stopping us from enjoying some of the successes that we've had because of that bitter taste in how close we've been,'' Holtz said.
Here are some of the things on which Louisiana Tech's 2017 conference title aspirations hinge:
YOUNGER QB: Louisiana Tech has had a senior behind center the past three seasons. Not anymore. Sophomore J'Mar Smith, who had one start as a freshman, takes over. Smith is learning ''not only the offense and what he has to do with reads and throws, but how he handles adversity,'' Holtz said. ''It's a growing period for him. I've said it all along: He is going to be a rock star. He has a phenomenal amount of talent.''
CATCHING ON: Tech's new QB takes over at a time when the Bulldogs are also replacing prolific receivers Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor. Henderson caught 82 passes for 1,535 yards and 19 touchdowns, while Taylor caught 136 passes for 1,803 yards and 12 TDs. That's 218 catches, 3,338 yards and 31 TDS combined. One newcomer who could help is transfer Teddy Veal, who led Tulane in receiving in his first two college seasons in 2014 and 2015.
DEFENSIVE TUNOVER: Louisiana Tech's defense will have seven new starters, which could be a good thing. Holtz has said that side of the ball has to improve. One player who will be missed is all-conference safety Xavier Woods, a sixth-round draft choice by the Dallas Cowboys. The Bulldogs' pass rush should be in good shape, though, with both starting ends back, including Jaylon Ferguson, who had 14+ sacks last season. Ferguson has been named to watch lists for both the Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards given to outstanding college defensive players.
INSPIRATIONAL RETURN: The squad has been uplifted by the return to action of sophomore running back JaQwis Dancy, whose career was sidetracked last season by a cancer diagnosis (Hodgkin lymphoma). Following treatment that included chemotherapy, Dancy was deemed cancer-free by doctors last February. He rejoined teammates on the field midway through spring practices.
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