Dave Aranda makes his head-coaching debut Saturday when his Baylor squad welcomes Louisiana Tech to McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas.
Aranda coordinated the national championship-winning LSU defense a season ago, and in his new role inherits a defense that ranked No. 19 nationally in points allowed in 2019. The Bears won 11 games under then-head coach Matt Rhule — now with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers — and fell just an overtime short of winning the Big 12 Conference championship.
“When (LSU was) prepping for our (College Football Playoff) semifinal game, we watched a lot of Baylor — two games worth vs. Oklahoma,” Aranda said at his introductory press conference in January. “I could see the togetherness of the team.”
Applying his philosophy to the inherited toughness hit a roadblock for Aranda and his staff, the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bears’ season opener was delayed a week, Louisiana Tech replaced an originally scheduled meeting with Ole Miss in Houston, and the Bulldogs slotted into a Sept. 12 weekend in which Baylor was initially set to face Big 12 counterpart Kansas.
Likewise, Louisiana Tech transitioned from scheduled opening dates at UNLV and Conference USA rival Southern Miss to Saturday’s road trip against Baylor.
The revised schedule, which was not set until Aug. 18, may have changed Louisiana Tech’s preparation. However, the Bulldogs entered training camp with other pressing matters in mind as a result of COVID-19.
“The first three days we came to camp, there was a lot of (anxiety), trepidation, concern on the practice field,” said Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz. “The question was, ‘Are we really going to do this?'”
“Now, we’ve been in camp three weeks, going through it,” he continued. “The No. 1 thing is, they want to play. That’s the bottom (line). That’s the formula for what’s made this team click.”
Holtz enters his eighth season as Louisiana Tech head coach. His teams have won at least seven games each of the last six seasons, and the 2019 squad set a high-water mark in his tenure with 10 wins.
While Saturday’s matchup may not have the same intrigue as Baylor’s original opener against an SEC opponent, with another first-year head coach in Lane Kiffin, Aranda’s debut poses a considerable challenge.
“For as long as I’ve known about (Louisiana) Tech, it’s been their efficiency on offense and their athletic skill on defense (that has been most impressive),” Aranda said.
Louisiana Tech’s “athletic skill” is particularly noteworthy. Since 2014, the program has produced 12 NFL draft picks, including 2020 draftees Amik Robertson and L’Jarius Sneed. The next Bulldog pros could include this season’s standouts like running back Justin Henderson and offensive lineman Kody Russey.
Henderson and Russey are rare returning starters on a new-look roster. Per ESPN.com, Louisiana Tech returns just 46 percent of its production from 2019, making the Bulldogs one of the least experienced teams in college football.
Baylor is in a similar situation. Aranda inherits 51 percent of production from 2019 per ESPN, including a mere 32 percent of defensive production. In linebacker Terrel Bernard, however, the Bears defense returns an important cornerstone around whom to build in the program’s new era.
–Field Level Media