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Early look: South Carolina faces Louisiana Tech for the first time since 1995

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Bulldogs ride into 2017 off of a third straight bowl win under Skip Holtz.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina welcomes the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs to Williams-Brice stadium in the fourth week of the 2017 season. After meeting in five straight seasons from 1991-1995, in which USC went 4-0-1, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks square off for the first time in 22 years.

Skip Holtz was hired at La Tech in 2013 after former head coach Sonny Dykes left for California. After a 4-8 debut season, Holtz has guided the Bulldogs to three straight bowl wins and two appearances in the Conference-USA championship game. After a 8-4 regular season, the Bulldogs fell to Western Kentucky in the conference title game before defeating Navy on a last second field goal in the Armed Forces Bowl to finish the campaign at 9-5.

Under Holtz, the Bulldogs are 1-6 against power-5 programs, with their only win against Illinois in a 2014 bowl game. They have dropped a few close ones recently though, losing at Kansas State in triple overtime in 2015 and at Arkansas 21-20 off of a late touchdown last season. That was the Bulldogs fourth straight loss against an SEC opponent since defeating Ole Miss in 2011.

The Bulldogs return 10 starters, with five on both offense and defense. The key player for Tech offense is senior tailback Jarred Craft. Craft ran for 1,074 yards and 9 touchdowns on 191 carries last season. He is also the team top returning receiver, catching the ball 42 times for 340 yards and four scores last year. He’ll be the focal point off the offense as sophomore J’Mar Smith takes over for Ryan Higgins under center. Higgins was one of the most productive QBs in the nation last season. Throwing for 4,617 yards, second to only Patrick Mahomes, he leaves big shoes to fill. He was suspended for the game in Arkansas last season, allowing Smith to start the opener. Smith had a touchdown run and threw for 219 yards with an interception in his college debut. He will have new targets as the Bulldogs lost their top two wide-outs, Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson. The pair caught 31 of the Bulldogs 43 passing touchdowns last season.

The Bulldogs are going to be solid in the trenches, returning three offensive-lineman and three defensive-lineman. The best of the bunch is edge-rusher Jaylon Ferguson. The 6’5” DE racked up a school single-season record of 14.5 sacks and forced four fumbles in his sophomore season. That was good enough to generate some NFL Draft buzz heading into his junior campaign.

Behind the line is where the Bulldogs will struggle on defense. They lost two starters at linebacker and three more starters in the secondary, including their top three tacklers. They posted a respectable run defense ranking (yards) of 42nd last year but where 116th against the pass. With the majority of their secondary gone from that team, the Gamecocks talented group of receivers should have no problem getting open for Jake Bentley.

La Tech has given some power-5 schools a scare of the past few seasons but with in-experience at QB, WR and in the secondary, it will be tough to get a win against a power-5 team. The Bulldogs take on Mississippi State two weeks at home two weeks before traveling to Columbia. That should provide a better gauge of this game. As long as the defense can bottle up Jarred Craft and the pass protection gives a little help on Jaylon Ferguson, the Gamecocks should be able to wrap up a comfortable home win before traveling to Texas A&M in week six.