Ticking like a smoked brisket time bomb toward September, Rant Sports continues its countdown of 100 teams in 100 days with the Texas Tech Red Raiders of the Big 12 checking in at the 49th slot.
Momentum. Texas Tech desperately needs it heading into Tommy Tuberville‘s third season on the South Plains coming off a year in which the Red Raiders missed a bowl game for the first time since 1999. Mike Leach‘s shadow faded with the dust and the only thing his return to college football does for fans of the red and black is drive the knife a little deeper. His successor earns $2 million annually, is signed through 2015 and apparently incapable of finding the right defensive coordinator. Texas Tech will employ their third in three years (Art Kaufman) and if the team is to improve on a 5-7 record in 2011 and perhaps squash whispers that Tuberville possesses wandering eyes, the defense is imperative.
At 5-2 in late October and riding the wave of an upset in Norman over third-ranked Oklahoma, Texas Tech flashed potential it hadn’t since 2008. Then the wheels, the engine, the transmission and the damn roof fell off. Five consecutive losses followed and with the exception of the Missouri game, none was overly competitive. So as Texas and Oklahoma keep recruiting at an elite level in the Lone Star State and Texas A&M experiences an uptick with the SEC move, it’s vital that the Red Raiders figure out a way to win the hearts of recruits currently infatuated with the Baylor Bears. It’s almost poetry, Baylor overtaking Texas Tech on the high school trail considering Art Briles was a prime candidate for the job Tuberville eventually accepted. And to illuminate the significance of momentum, the Bears’ victory over the Red Raiders in 2011 was their first in fifteen tries.
So what’s on the dusty docket for 2012 in Lubbock?
No player is more important to fixing the derailing of 2011 than running back Eric Stephens. A dislocated left knee in a loss to Texas A&M cost the underrated rusher a 1,000 yard season — he still managed 8 touchdowns and 565 yards in 5 games — and his absence forced quarterback Seth Doege to wing it, a lot. That’s not to say the signal-caller isn’t talented but even in the spread era of the Big 12, some semblance of a running attack makes a defense think. Eschew that balance and you may as well tell your quarterback you’ve confirmed his dental appointment with the opposing defensive ends.
If Stephens fails to reach full strength, the potential of Kenny Williams, a former 4-star recruit, tantalizes but he’s also in the midst of some legal issues (arrested along with tight end Jace Amaro for credit card abuse in March) thought he’s expected to play. DeAndre Washington figures to earn plenty of carries as well in Stephens’ absence. Through the air, come on this is Texas Tech, don’t act like they aren’t throwing it around the yard a little bit, is handled by offensive coordinator Neal Brown and the senior quarterback, Doege. He tossed 28 touchdowns against 10 interceptions in 2011 en route to 4,004 yards and a completion percentage of 68.5%. Like Landry Jones sans Ryan Broyles and Bill apart from Ted, Doege struggled without Eric Stephens. He’ll need him in 2012 to complement a talented group of wide receivers.
The trio of Eric Ward (84 catches, 800 yards, 11 touchdowns), Alex Torres (51 catches, 616 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Darrin Moore (47 catches, 571 yards, 8 touchdowns) return as one of the better positional units in the Big 12. Moore is likely to miss time early for a DWI arrest but that simply means the next skill player on Texas Tech’s roster receives more touches. In this case, it’s Bradley Marquez.
Exiting stage right is former defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow (fired and jumped back to TCU) and his 4-2-5 defense. In his place, Art Kaufman comes with experience from North Carolina, the first name of an elementary school subject and a 4-3 defensive set. For recruitniks, 5-star defensive tackle Delvin Simmons’ addition at Tech was the source of some surprise when the NCAA allowed him out of a letter of intent with UNC. Surely, Tuberville and his staff hope the sophomore exhibits some of that superior talent playing alongside fellow tackle Kerry Hyder.
In a league where quarterbacks are said to throw guys open rather than throwing to an opening, pressure on signal-callers is paramount. That’s where any number of Red Raiders have a legitimate chance to grab a place in this defense and make himself a permanent fixture. Branden Jackson, end/tackle Leon Mackey and Jackson Richards possess ability but production earns Saturday snaps. Terrance Bullitt and Will Smith highlight a potentially nasty crew of linebackers and one that may relieve some of the pressure on the defensive line provided they’re able to master the third playbook in three years.
Big 12 secondaries are mostly at the mercy of their pass rush. If the latter exists, the prospects at safety and corner have the tendency to shine. If it doesn’t, throw a Thorpe Award winner back there and it won’t matter because quarterbacks like Doege will find a crease.
Anything less than a 4-0 start draws some consternation on how much better Tech is from last year. Then, the gully washer arrives in the form of Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State and Texas in successive weeks. Those are all pseudo-Big 12 contenders and depending on a healthy Eric Stephens, the difference between seven wins and five. Nab two of those five and the Red Raiders can point to tangible progress. Lose them all, knock off Kansas and finish the year 6-6 and Tuberville’s seat might evoke a bit of heat. Their final two opponents, Oklahoma State and Baylor, must replace veteran, award-winning quarterbacks. A Tech win in either wouldn’t surprise. Let’s call it 7-5 or 8-4, a rebirth of sorts for Texas Tech and a step toward reclaiming the momentum Mike Leach took with him to the Florida Keys.