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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Texas Tech

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. Expectations on defense. Mike Leach let defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich go after the Raiders allowed 610 yards and seven touchdowns to Oklahoma State in their Big 12 opener, and to read the offseason press, longtime assistant Ruffin McNeil was the tough-loving molder of responsible, aggressive, sure-tackling defensive men Tech has been waiting for. There’s this statistic floating around, per Tech’s Scout site back in January:

Over the course of the final eight games of the regular season, Texas Tech's defense ranked first in the Big 12 Conference in total defense and improved in every defensive category. Additionally, the Red Raider pass defense led the conference and was among the top units in the country.

...and then Mark Schlabach in May:

But what is expected to make the 2008 Texas Tech team different from others in the past is its defense. Eight starters are expected to return to a unit that led the Big 12 in defense over the final eight games of the 2007 season.

...and in the print edition of Athlon:

Under McNeill, Tech led the Big 12 in defense over the final eight games of the year.

I’m not sure how this was calculated, exactly, but part of Tech’s last eight games included easy routs over Northwestern State, Iowa State and Baylor, so it could be true. Level out the schedules, though, and not quite:

Boxes indicate conference leaders per category; numbers courtesy the great CFB Stats.
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Even by the very, very generous standards of the most offensively-oriented conference in the country, that’s a middle-of-the-pack effort. Tech did lead in pass defense, and did well in the more important measure of pass efficiency D, but who needed to throw? Even after the evisceration by Oklahoma State and the subsequent coaching change, Tech allowed 233 yards rushing to Texas A&M, 212 to Missouri, 219 to Colorado, 308 to Texas and 249 to Virginia; it allowed 41 points to Missouri, 59 to Texas, and was the only Big 12 team besides Baylor and Nebraska –– the worst defenses in the conference –– to allow Colorado to score more than thirty. Outside of holding to Texas A&M to seven points, the positives are limited to games against non-BCS scrubs, Iowa State and Baylor and a first half against Oklahoma minus the Sooners’ starting quarterback.

And it did even better relative to the rest of the Big 12 than it did in comparison to past Tech defenses:

Boxes this time indicate the worst season per category.
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The least you should know about Texas Tech...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 9-4 (4-4 Big 12, T-3rd)
2003-07: 42-21 (23-17 Big 12)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 33 • 37 • 25 • 52 • 45
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (8 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
Obviously, to say Michael Crabtree took the Big 12 by storm or something would be an understatement. He set freshman records for everything, came pretty close to setting national records for everything, regardless of class, and won the Biletnikoff Award. Better defenses caught on later in the year and held him somewhat in check –– 17 touchdowns in the first six games declined to five TDs in the last seven –– and there was the flatly dropped touchdown on fourth down that would have beaten Oklahoma State, after he’d caught three scores earlier in the game. But Crabtree still had 64 catches in those last seven, dominated Texas and Oklahoma (21 for 349 and 3 TDs in back-to-back games) and is a good bet to go toward the top of next year’s draft, if he wants. All things considered, the best receiver in the country.
Reach Out and Buy Season Tickets
Tech gets a lot of credit for unabashedly clinging to the politcally incorrect "Guns Up" signal as its mandatory contribution to the sprawling genre of Texas football hand signs, but nevertheless contributes to the creeping corporate footprint on the sport by way of Jones AT&T Stadium. The edifice pays homage to the people who built it: humble Texas couple Clifford B. and Audrey Jones, who donated much of the original $400,000 construction cost in the mid-forties, and faceless corporate giant SBC (since bought out by your all-encompassing telecommunications master), which donated, uh, considerably more to the ongoing, $52 million expansion begun in 2000. Pieces of the old AstroTurf from Jones/AT&T went for $200-$500 in 2006. Hey, whatever it takes.
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* According to Rivals.

This is piling on a bit, since I think improvement is very likely with eight returning starters, but the D had eight returning starters in 2005 and nine in 2004, so I’m not sure where there’s any evidence this bunch will throw off the long-abiding reigns and assume the pedestal as Leach’s best defense. It will be more experienced, but not more talented –– of the returnees, only cornerback Jamar Wall and maybe safety Darcel McBath project as all-conference types, and none of the starters was rated above three stars out of high school (recruiting skeptics see here, here and here). In games that matter, improvement is just getting back to "average"; since almost everyone’s defensive numbers were awful last year and are bound to improve, it will take more than just a nudge in the right direction to make a difference in the record.

What’s the Same. Graham Harrell was the most highly-recruited of any of Leach’s prolific quarterbacks (four stars back in 2004) and had the best season of anyone in that group in terms of efficiency: in Big 12 games, he had a higher completion percentage for more yards per attempt, a lower interception percentage and a higher passer rating than any of his predecessors in the Air Raid, which is saying quite a lot next to Kingsbury, Symons, Cumbie and Hodges.

I think we should throw. What do you think?
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But where they all worked with rather generic athletes who succeeded as part of the system, Harrell’s biggest advantage will continue to be that he has the special, dominant athlete Tech’s other slingers never did in Michael Crabtree, the most impressive of last year’s true breakout stars. You’ve also got all five offensive linemen back and five other guys who had at least 20 catches, but again –– per Michael Lewis’ prediction –– any sense that this might be Tech’s year to challenge the division overlords is an outgrowth of the maturity of Oklahoma/Texas level talent within Leach’s unique approach to offense. That is, however absurd it seems that they might somehow exceed last year’s production, Harrell and Crabtree’s consistency is a minimum requirement for moving forward.

Possession is Half the Battle. I usually don’t give much credence to time of possession, because the margins are typically so small, and in Tech’s case, it’s generally succeeded despite finishing routinely near the bottom in terms of ball control. The NCAA’s only kept the statistic officially since 2005, during which time the Raiders have finished tenth, eleventh and eleventh in the Big 12, and among the bottom 15 teams in the country in possession the last two years.

Maybe this matters and maybe it doesn’t: in three of its four losses last year, Tech was at a disadvantage of almost eight minutes against Oklahoma State, more than eight minutes at Colorado and a whopping ten-and-a-half minutes against Texas, while holding onto the ball about six-and-a-half minutes longer than Oklahoma in the turning point of the season. But it was at similar disadvantages in easy wins over Iowa State, Texas A&M and Baylor, and a slight advantage in possession in the lopsided loss to Missouri. The correlation is certainly not one-to-one, but the defense did face nine plays more on average in losses than in wins –– about a full drive per game, which makes a big difference for a mediocre defense occasionally hanging on for its life.

One way to improve that number and keep the defense off the field is to improve on third downs, especially third-and-short (1-3 yards to go). Tech’s overall third down percentage looks good, but, like a lot of its numbers, are more sobering when you separate Big 12 games from the non-conference fluff: in-conference, the success rate declined to 41 percent, and was less than 50 percent on short-yardage situations, where the Raiders (of course) tended to throw, without a lot of success –- they were actually more successful passing on 3rd-and-7 or longer (45.3 percent in all games) than on 3rd-and-6 or less (39.3 percent), which is definitely not normal and speaks to the need of a more reliable running game to pull the latter number up.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. For obvious reasons, the focus was supposed to be on getting the defense up to par, and it would seem it delivered on that goal:

Red Raider fans got a glimpse of Texas Tech's newly fortified defensive line during the annual Red-Black Game on Saturday as the unit recorded nine sacks and pressured the squad's quarterbacks throughout the workout. The defense edged out a 29-23 win over the offense.
Defensive tackle Richard Jones led the unit with three sacks, while ends Daniel Howard and [McKinner] Dixon recorded two each. Despite playing against a thinned-out offensive line, the defensive front rotation showed its athleticism and spent much of the day in the backfield, accounting for 84 lost yards on tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

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A satisfying defensive improvement? Nay –– Leach was so dismayed by what he saw in the Saturday game he made the whole team strap ‘em on again on Sunday, for a "much more violent and active" (and closed to the public, so possibly Medieval) scrimmage that apparently was closer to his expectations. Though the defense still won.

Texas Tech on You Tube. Keep a close eye on the ball in Grant Walker’s hands, and on the official standing about six feet from Oklahoma’s demonstrative assistant:

That’s the ref’s hand coming into the picture at about 0:27 to catch the ball. Flag? Uh, no. The scurvy dog dares not flag a brazen buccaneer on his own turf, even surrounded by the other team’s scalawags. Ye be pleasing the funny bone on the slow-mo, matey.

See Also: A wealth of entertaining Tech stuff out there, even beyond Mike Leach, like... ... Alabama didn’t win the Cotton Bowl? ... Tech gets introduced by the Donald. ... And it looks like a ton of fun to be a Raider, crawling into cabinets, jousting in the dorms, parodying generic, self-righteous university ads, testing debris impact, branding yourself with the Double T, tailgating to excess, being taken to the ground and arrested as you storm the field, taking shots to the face...just don’t pass out at the parties, man. (And just for the hell of it, the Lubbock Babes).

Best-Case: Raider partisans will no doubt be disappointed with anything less than a 6-0 start, against the usual non-conference cakewalk in September (Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU, UMass) and North also-rans K-State and Nebraska to open the Big 12 season. The next two, at Texas A&M and Kansas, are winnable, which opens the door to 8-0 when Texas comes to Lubbock the first Saturday in November for one of the biggest games in Tech history, if it gets to that point. I have to think there’s a loss among Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma –– taking two of three would mean winning at least one on the road, and the Raiders have been much better under Leach at home, and taking three out of four from Oklahoma, in particular, seems like a stretch -– but a defense as improved as everyone seems to think it should be makes Tech an immediate contender for the division title. I can envision a Kansas-like run to 11-1 and an at-large BCS bid, but even optimistically, Oklahoma has a vice-grip on the South.

Worst-Case: The Raiders have been maddeningly inconsistent for a team with very high expectations, including some really baffling and disappointing losses: Oklahoma State in 2005, Colorado in 2006, Colorado and Oklahoma State last year. They haven’t been competitive in two straight losses to Missouri, have dropped five straight to Texas and haven’t come close to winning at Oklahoma since Bob Stoops was hired there. A 4-0 start seems inevitable, but historically, there’s a loss in one of the two road games against Kansas State or Texas A&M, and another between Kansas (again, Tech has struggled on the road, and KU has been suprisingly good under Mangino in Lawrence) and Oklahoma State, in addition to the annual beating by UT and OU. That’s just another 4-4 conference record and middling bowl game, and the first obvious setback in eight years of mostly steady optimism and progress.

Non-Binding Forecast: January or Bust. Last year’s upset notwithstanding, no credible forecast will move very loaded Oklahoma from the top of the division. Tech is realistically shooting for second place in the South and a Cotton Bowl bid at worst, which means a) Substantially improved defense; b) Better consistency on both sides of the ball –– the numberes will look sensational again, but gaudy blowouts of SMU don’t mean much when the offense stalls against a Colorado or Missouri (or, with this year’s schedule, say, Nebraska and Kansas), and the defense falls apart against Oklahoma State; and c) A win over Texas in Lubbock. All of those elements seem more likely now than they ever have in the past. I’m still inclined to take Texas’ overall talent advantage and guess there’s the usual letdown somewhere in tough games with A&M, Kansas and Oklahoma State, but the Raiders shouldn’t be satisfied with any more than three losses, or any less than the Holiday Bowl. This looks like a sure top 25 team, but until it demonstrates the leap on defense, not top fifteen.