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It's odd previewing a unit that could quite likely be very good in 2010 ... and yet, you have no idea what their identity is going to be. New Tech coach Tommy Tuberville has both half-dissed Mike Leach's system (to paraphrase what he said, your quarterback ends up on the ground in every play) and vowed not to change much. One thing is certain: Tech's success will come down to the offensive line. There is both depth and experience at the skill position level, but if Tech can't block, they obviously won't succeed.
Record: 9-4 (5-3 in the Big 12)
Scoring Margin: +189 (+14.5 per game)
Conference Scoring Margin: +90 (+11.3 per game)
Wins (F/+ Ranking in parentheses): #10 Oklahoma (41-13), #17 Nebraska (31-10), #40 Michigan State (41-31), #60 Kansas (42-21), #72 Baylor (20-13), #90 Kansas State (66-14), #108 New Mexico (48-28), #118 Rice (55-10), North Dakota (38-13)
Losses: #5 Texas (24-34), #38 Oklahoma State (17-24), #44 Houston (28-29), #47 Texas A&M (30-52)
When you think about what they lost after 2008, how can you not be tremendously impressed with the job Mike Leach and Tech did last year? With seemingly a new quarterback every week (injuries bit them hard), all they did was once again win nine games, dropping only two wins from their historic highs of 2008. They went 2-1 versus Top 25 teams (including 3+ touchdown wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska), and though they oddly went only 1-3 versus teams ranked between No. 26-50, considering the expectations, this was a fantastic season for the Red Raiders.
The offseason, on the other hand, was ... interesting. You know the story by now. Mike Leach gets accused of mistreating Adam James, doesn't really apologize, calls James' dad Craig a "little league parent" (let's face it, potentially the most accurate description of anybody, anywhere, in the history of the world), gets the complete and total support of the blogosphere despite what really was a series of pretty stupid choices, and is eventually forced out. Texas Tech fans revolt. He sues and eventually decides to write a book with Bruce Feldman (could not possibly be more excited about this). Meanwhile, Tech hires Tommy Tuberville to replace him, and Tech fans ... well, they're pretty pleased about that. They seem to be, in some ways, conflicted right now. They're still outraged about Leach, but they're most likely pretty excited about the promise of the Tuberville era.
Head Coach: Tommy Tuberville
Career Record: 110-60
Tommy Tuberville is a lot of things, some good and some bad. But he's definitely a) interesting in his own right, and b) a damn solid football coach. He was forced out at Auburn after a failure to return to the heights of 2004 and a down year/failed experiment with the spread offense in 2008. After a year off, in which he made TV appearances and basically postured for every single college football vacancy, he landed in Lubbock. Honestly, this could be a very good fit. We still have to see how his style and preferences merge with the current personnel on both sides of the ball, but long-term this was a rock solid hire.
Further adding confusion to what Tech's offensive identity is going to be this year, Tuberville brought former Troy offensive coordinator (and spread offense wizard) Neal Brown with him to Lubbock. Brown's a young guy (29, I believe) who had extraordinary success at Troy. There's no word yet on whether he has slept since he got to Lubbock, or if the "OH MY GOD, I GET TO PLAY WITH MIKE LEACH'S TOYS" adrenaline rush is still kicking in. When Tuberville tried to bring the spread to Auburn, there were some sorts of institutional blocks preventing it from working well, be it Tuberville's own style preferences, those of his other coaches, or whatever. It didn't work, but if it is ever going to work, it will be in Lubbock, with Brown at the chess board.
Standard Downs S&P+: 19th
Redzone S&P+: 24th
Q1 S&P+: 8th
1st Down S&P+: 32nd
Rushing S&P+: 26th
Standard Downs: 10th
Adj. Line Yards: 29th
Passing S&P+: 28th
Standard Downs: 44th
Adj. Sack Rate: 19th
One thing I always enjoy about S&P+ figures is the way it makes all different types of offensive styles fit into the same grid. Yes, Tech always averaged outlandish point and yardage totals, but they ran a lot more plays than everybody else. When looked at from the advanced metrics perspective, Tech's offense was quite good, but not great in 2009, ranking between Nevada and Michigan State in Offensive S&P+. Considering the turnover and injuries, that's pretty good. This was supposed to be a bit of a dropoff season, and it was. But Tech continued to win thanks to timely play and ever-improving defense.
Relying on new quarterbacks (Graham Harrell was gone after three strong years as a starter) and new roles in the receiving corps (no Michael Crabtree), Leach seemed a little less sure what to call and when. Tech ranked just 44th in Standard Downs Passing; as we've discussed here before, standard downs are what I'm enjoying calling "play-calling downs," and while their Standard Downs Rushing averages were solid (they always were with Leach, thanks to the element of surprise), they were pretty conservative with the pass. Of course, once they fell into passing downs, they thrived.
|Standard Downs S&P+||4||7||14||11||19|
|Passing Downs S&P+||6||48||10||7||7|
|Adj. Line Yards||3||29||68||3||29|
|Adj. Sack Rate||40||4||9||1||19|
|* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.
Under Leach, Tech's success came in cycles. The Red Raiders always had a good offense, but when the experience and talent came together just right, it became a great offense. The 2005 and 2008 seasons were peaks for both the offense and Tech as a whole, while 2006 and 2009 represented rebuilding years. Oh, to rebuild and "fall" all the way to the low-teens and 20s.
I do have to point out one slight trend: just like Big 12 opponents have gotten a bit accustomed to Mike Anderson's style in basketball, forcing Mizzou to sometimes drop the press and slow the game down, I do think teams were slightly starting to figure out the Leach attack. When Tech was finishing second in the South in 2005, their Standard Downs rank was fourth, and even when they took steps backwards in 2006, they ranked seventh. They hadn't ranked in the top ten since then. If those truly are "play-calling downs," then opponents were slowly but surely figuring out Leach's method of attack. Of course, Tech still thrived at a very high level on passing downs, and between that and improving defense, the wins kept rolling in. But if the defense hadn't been improving since Ruffin McNeill took over at defensive coordinator, it's quite possible that Tech would have begun a slow backwards slide.
2009 Unit Ranking: 18th (3rd in the Big 12)
Projected Depth Chart
Steven Sheffield (6'4, 190, Sr., 1,219 passing yds, 9.0 per pass, 74% completion, 14 TD, 4 INT)
Taylor Potts (6'5, 218, Sr., 3,440 passing yds, 7.3 per pass, 66% completion, 22 TD, 13 INT)
Seth Doege (6'2, 205, So., 369 passing yds, 6.0 per pass, 62% completion, 2 TD, 0 INT)
First things first: Taylor Potts is considered the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, and he will probably do so. But I have to give a nod to Steven Sheffield in this space. In a Q&A I did with Double-T Nation while wearing my Football Outsiders hat, Seth C. asked me about the Potts-Sheffield situation, and here was my answer:
I don't track the schedule-adjusted S&P+ figure on a per-quarterback basis, but I can tell you what their unadjusted S&P figures were. Here they are per-quarterback (NOTE: sacks do indeed count as part of the passing numbers and not the rushing numbers -- I hate that they are counted as part of rushing in the NCAA stats):Steven Sheffield: 52.1% success rate, 0.58 PPP**, 1.097 S&P
Taylor Potts: 47.4% success rate, 0.38 PPP, 0.857 S&P
: 40.6% success rate, 0.24 PPP, 0.645 S&P
Potts' sample size was clearly the highest, and there's a chance that Sheffield's numbers would have come down if he had played more. But ... Sheffield went 23-for-32 for 234 against Nebraska. I REALLY like Sheffield. Potts is good, but SS is better according to S&P and my own eyes (granted, I did not see the OSU game).
Without taking opponent into account, Sheffield outperformed Potts by a very strong margin, especially in terms of downfield passing and big plays (PPP). He also completed a higher percentage of passes (74% to 66%), with a better TD-INT ratio (14-to-4 for Sheffield, 22-to-13 for Potts). If he had been able to stay healthy, he might have been able to hold onto the starting job through 2009 and into 2010. But in 2009, nobody stayed healthy. Here are the per-game passing attempt figures for Tech quarterbacks in 2009:
|vs Michigan State||43||11|
Potts got hurt against New Mexico, and Sheffield took over, leading Tech to potentially their two most impressive wins of the season -- an 66-14 demolition of Kansas State and a turnover-aided 31-10 win over Nebraska. But he got hurt against Nebraska and ceded the job back to a hobbled Potts and Doege. Doege struggled, and while Sheffield played a bit against Oklahoma State, the job was basically back in Potts' hands. I still think Sheffield is the best option here, but for any number of reasons, signs point to Potts having the upper hand in this race.
2009 Unit Ranking: 25th (3rd in the Big 12)
Projected Depth Chart
I have no doubt that Baron Batch enjoyed playing in Mike Leach's offense. He rushed for over 1,600 yards and 21 TDs in the last two years, and he caught 102 passes to boot. He was a nice weapon in Leach's system, and I'm sure he got a kick out of that. However...
I have no doubt that nobody was more excited about the arrival of Tommy Tuberville than Batch. If Tuberville makes any changes to the offense whatsoever, it will likely positively impact the number of times Batch is handed the ball. Any sort of adjustment toward power running will put all the attention on No. 25, and he will likely have a very impressive season.
As a whole, the trifecta of Batch, Eric Stephens and Harrison Jeffers was really effective last year, averaging about 5.5 yards per carry between them and catching of 700 yards' worth of passes out of the backfield. This was an effective unit for what they were asked to do, and the only question in regard to the running backs is, can they maintain their lovely per-play averages if they are asked to do more running in predictable situations? As I've said approximately a thousand times, with Leach calling plays, Tech could run 18 straight times and defenses would be playing the pass on the 19th. If Tuberville uses the run in more standard ways, Tech's rushing averages could go down a bit, but that is not the same thing as saying they will be ineffective.
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends
2009 Unit Ranking: 28th (4th in the Big 12)
Projected WR Depth Chart
Tramain Swindall (6'3, 180, Jr., 694 receiving yds, 12.6 per catch, 5 TD)
Lyle Leong (6'1, 165, Sr., 571 receiving yds, 12.7 per catch, 9 TD)
Austin Zouzalik (6'1, 181, So., 469 receiving yds, 13.4 per catch, 2 TD)
Jacoby Franks (6'1, 185, Jr., 313 receiving yds, 12.0 per catch, 2 TD)
Adam James (6'3, 216, Jr., 154 receiving yds, 9.1 per catch, 1 TD)
Cornelius Douglas (5'9, 193, So., 28 receiving yds, 7.0 per catch)
Eric Ward (5'11, 202, RSFr.)
E.J. Celestie (5'11, 174, RSFr.)
Aaron Fisher (6'3, 182, RSFr.)
Derrick Mays (6'0, 166, RSFr.)
Projected TE Depth Chart
Can you be both great and nondescript? After the departure of a marquee man in Michael Crabtree, Tech relied on a large cast of characters in 2009. No single receiver gained more than 65 yards per game via air, but at the same time, Nebraska's second-leading receiver would have been Tech's seventh-leading receiver (eighth including Baron Batch). In an offense that values poking and prodding and finding weaknesses wherever they are located, Tech's receiving corps was balanced and, there is no doubt, effective.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Leach's attack was not only the balance in the receiving corps or the always sturdy completion rates ... it's the yards per catch. In a lot of spread offenses, the passes are conservative and horizontal. With Leach, the QB still had the horizontal option with the frequently used dump-offs to the running backs. But the receivers were getting downfield a lot, as evidenced by the fact that the top six leading returning receivers all averaged at least 12 yards per catch.
The main question, of course: can this unit remain effective with somebody else calling the plays? They are oddly balanced this year in terms of shape and size -- the seven top receivers above are all listed between 6'1 and 6'3, with only two straying from the 180-205 pound range -- but will the weapons thrive under a slightly different system? I have no reason to assume the answer is no ... it's just that, as with everything else, we really don't know the answer yet.
2009 Unit Ranking: 29th (5th in the Big 12)
Projected Depth Chart
G Lonnie Edwards (6'5, 290, Jr., 10 career starts)
C Chris Olson (6'5, 296, Sr., 9 career starts)
T Terry McDaniel (6'7, 335, So., 4 career starts)
T LaAdrian Waddle (6'6, 350, So., 2 career starts)
G Mickey Okaford (6'7, 319, Jr., 2 career starts)
C Justin Keown (6'4, 302, Sr., 2 career starts)
G Deveric Gallington (6'4, 350, So.)
T Beau Carpenter (6'7, 275, Fr.)
G Kyle Clark (6'5, 277, RSFr.)
T Blake Emert (6'5, 287, Jr.)
And now we reach the true question mark. We know that the winner of the Potts-Sheffield battle will likely be solid, we know that Baron Batch could be ready for a breakout season, and we're pretty sure we know that the receiving corps will be ready to rock and roll. But what about the line? When I was setting up the Football Outsiders projections this offseason, I threw basically every projection factor I could think of into an excel spreadsheet (I didn't even know you could get to Column LK) and checked out the strength of the correlations between a given factor and its impact (positive or negative) on the next year's performance. Easily the single biggest surprise was how little effect returning OL starters had on the team's performance. I assumed that would be one of the stronger projection factors, and it simply was not. There was not enough data to use the "returning career starts" factor that is gaining in popularity, and I hope to add that to the mix next season, but quite simply, returning starting OL's barely even factored into the FO projection equation.
That is very good news for Tech, as their offensive line has to replace three rock solid starters -- guard Brandon Carter, tackle Marlon Winn, and center Shawn Byrnes -- and only returns one player with double-digit career starts. Nobody has yet started a full season. There is potential (Lonnie Edwards could be an all-conference guard this year) and size (the projected starting tackles combine for 13'1 in height and 685 pounds), but there are still plenty of unknowns. Both tackles are sophomores, and they could be pushed by a couple of even less experienced players -- freshman Beau Carpenter (a one-time Mizzou target) was in for spring and looked solid, while another tackle (Aleon Calhoun) was one of Tuberville's most highly-rated signees.
However this lineup shakes out, it could determine whether Tech is fighting for a bowl bid or knocking out A&M for the No. 3 spot in the South. FO's projections might say that OL experience doesn't matter as much as we think it does ... but it sure does feel like it should, doesn't it?
As I mentioned on The Closers yesterday, it is hard to reach too conclusive an opinion about the Tech offense until we see them in action against SMU on Sunday, September 5. In theory, the components are rather promising. You will have plenty of senior leadership at the skill positions -- Potts/Sheffield, Batch, Detron Lewis and Leong -- and a strong, young offensive coordinator pulling the strings. Tommy Tuberville is a damn strong coach, and it is quite possible that he can maintain Tech's play from recent seasons.
People seem to be predicting at least a temporary step backwards for the Tech program, and for all we know, that might happen; the line is inexperienced, and we might find out that Leach was more of a play-calling magician than we even knew. Even a strong OC like Neal Brown might take a while to figure out what he has. That said, if things click even a little bit, Tech could build up a gaudy early record. Their first three road trips are to New Mexico, Iowa State and Colorado, and while Colorado strangely had their number in the last couple of TT-CU contests (a 30-6 CU win in Boulder in 2006, and a 31-26 CU win in Lubbock in 2007), those are still not the most intimidating of road trips. FO's projection for Tech was an aggressive 16th, based on the projection of a very strong offense. Can they live up to that?