Photos: R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl _lowres

Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz holds the trophy aloft after his Bulldogs beat Arkansas State 47-28 on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in the New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Tech is one of four schools to win bowls the last four seasons.

The successes are easy to chronicle for Louisiana Tech the last four seasons.

Three straight nine-win campaigns and a seven-win season, each crowned by a bowl victory, vaulting the Bulldogs into the company of just three other schools to achieve that feat: Georgia, Wisconsin and Utah. Tech crushed SMU 51-10 in the Frisco Bowl to finish 2017 at 7-6.

But the close calls come just as quickly to mind, and probably hurt more than the victories satisfy. A 21-20 loss in 2016 to Arkansas. Three one-point losses last season: 17-16 at South Carolina, 23-22 at UAB and 24-23 to North Texas.

As the 2018 season looms, Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz is philosophical.

“We have to get better,” said Holtz, speaking Wednesday with other Louisiana Tech coaches to boosters at the Bulldog Blitz tour stop at Mike Anderson’s restaurant. “I’ve said I don’t mind losing a close game as long as we learn from it.

“This football team knows how close we are. I think there’s a hunger. It’s not about patting everybody on the back and saying, ‘Oh, look at four (straight) bowl wins, how great this is.’ It’s, ‘Look at what could have been; we want more.’ ” We’ve got to continue to develop as a program.”

For the short term, that development will go hand-in-hand with the progress of junior quarterback J’Mar Smith. A sophomore starter this past season, Smith at times battled the dreaded learning curve as well as opposing defenses while throwing for just under 3,000 yards (2,974) with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Smith is the first returning starter at quarterback for Tech since 2010, predating Holtz’s arrival in Ruston. It’s understandable then that Tech’s sixth-year coach is warmed by the thought of having Smith back.

“I expect him to play like a junior,” said Holtz, who will be back in Baton Rouge with his team on Sept. 22 to take on LSU. “Last year he got the opportunity to be the starting quarterback. We turned the ball over some at the beginning of the season but I thought he got better as the season went on.”

The big question mark for Tech is at running back. Holtz can point with justifiable pride to former 1,000-yard rusher Boston Scott – currently in OTAs with the Saints after being drafted in the sixth-round by New Orleans in April – but identifying Scott’s replacement is key.

“Running back is a big question mark,” Holtz said, who is likely to turn to junior Jaqwis Dancy (262 yards, two touchdowns) and senior Kam McKnight (42 yards, three TDs).

Overall though Holtz, son of Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz, is optimistic his Bulldogs can be a championship player in Conference USA.

“I think we have a chance,” he said. “I like our attitude, our culture, the way the kids are working hard.”

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​