2011 Missouri Football Preview: Texas Tech

2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State | Oklahoma State | Texas A&M | Baylor | Texas
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Ends (Bonus) | Defensive Tackles | Linebackers | Cornerbacks | Safeties

Texas Tech has been a major conference team for just over 50 years since joining the Southwest Conference in 1960 after a brief run of independence and almost 25 years in the Border Conference. In their history, they've finished in the AP Top 15 five times, once in the last 35 years. Their fans are passionate, they're located in the land of Friday Night Lights, and for the past decade and a half, they've been a consistent, winning program. But in their fifty years as a major conference team, what is their true legacy in 50 years as a major conference team?

National success has been hard to come by, but in a decade under Mike Leach, they established both a higher baseline of wins and, perhaps as importantly, an identity. Leach's awkward dismissal from Tech 18 months ago appalled the aforementioned passionate fans and created a bit of a difficult situation for his accomplished successor, Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville was able to steer Tech to another bowl in 2010, but it feels like fans are only now beginning to consider life on the Tuberville bandwagon. Tech indeed survived what was truly a bitter divorce last fall, and that is, in and of itself, commendable, but with another new defensive alignment and a boatload of skill position players to replace, Tech could be in store for another autumn of survival.

Life as a fan of what we'll call a "second-tier" program is often hard. In college football, you can typically only expect to see the level of success that you've seen before. For Tech, that has primarily meant seven to eight wins and road beatings at the hands of the conference's powers. Leach was able to raise the bar to, typically, eight or nine wins and runs to the Cotton Bowl when stars align. The results were strong and incredibly entertaining, and though Tuberville actually achieved at an even higher level at Auburn than Leach did at Tech, it is difficult to discern how high Tech's ceiling is at this point. And with another year of coagulation in the works (and a very deep upper-half of the Big 12), we probably won't know that answer until at least 2012. But as Missouri found out in Lubbock in 2010, Texas Tech need not field its best team to beat the Tigers on an off-night.

OFFENSE

Though it wasn’t the true Leach Airraid by any means, the Red Raiders often looked like the Tech the college football world has come to expect in 2010. The Red Raiders threw the ball, committed to their identity and played at a pace amongst the country’s fastest. The identity is preserved by offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who was brought aboard prior to 2010 after running a tremendous Troy offense, and his philosophy isn't all that different than Leach's. Tech’s change in 2010 wasn’t in identity, it was just in effectiveness.

A running game that was used both sparsely and effectively under Leach was just sparse, and while Tech was decent on passing downs, they faced too many passing downs to thrive. They were strong in the red zone and protected the passer well, but the hot and cold nature of Tech’s big play threats mirrored the ups and downs of the team’s entire season. Now, the Red Raiders must replace their top two quarterbacks, their leading rusher, and two receivers responsible for 37 percent of all Tech pass targets in 2010.

New quarterback Seth Doege reportedly displayed a strong grasp of the offense and a stronger arm this spring and, perhaps most importantly, he’ll benefit from the return of all five starters on an offensive line that was superb a year ago. The line features left guard Lonnie Edwards and right tackle Mickey Okafor, both of whom were good enough to snag second-team all-conference honors in 2010.

At tailback, on a per-carry basis, running backs Eric Stephens (5.3 yards per carry) and Ben McRoy (6.8 yards per carry) outperformed now-departed starter Baron Batch. Plus, the two departed receivers – Detron Lewis and Lyle Leong – were far from irreplaceable, which is strange but true from a duo that combined for 161 catches and almost 1,800 yards. Lewis’ numbers were somewhat expected given the 120 passes thrown his way. Leong was special, both because of his solid 9.1 yards per catch and his strangely effective nose for the end zone. Regardless, Tech has any number of receivers who can, at the very least, replace Lewis' production. Alex Torres was basically the same receiver in half the targets last year, and Austin Zouzalik led the team with a 9.8-yards-per-target average.

Perhaps the two most interesting receivers to watch are newcomers. Jace Amaro is an intriguing freshman, a 6'5", four-star tight end recruit. Mizzou knows better than any team in the country what kind of versatility can come from adding a strong, pass catching tight end to a pass-heavy system. Meanwhile, receiver Darrin Moore is not necessarily a newcomer, but he was not a major facet of last year's offense, and he has emerged as a potential game-breaker this fall.

DEFENSE

Sometimes the transition to a 3-4 goes smoothly (see: Texas A&M), and sometimes it doesn't. When Tech moved to a three-man line last year, they did so with a converted linebacker as their best end and a smaller, quicker tackle serving as the nose. Tech was already undersized up front, but upon losing junior college transfer Scott Smith to suspension and reserve Aundray Barr to injury, any semblance of depth was decimated before October. Combined with a secondary composed primarily of underclassmen, Tech's defensive performance regressed almost as much as their offensive performance.

Tech defensive coordinator James Willis left the program in the offseason, leaving the Red Raider defense to take its cues from their third coordinator in three seasons. It will be the third different alignment as well, as Tech now moves to a 4-2-5 after hiring Chad Glasgow from TCU. The alignment is predicated upon speed, as it requires defenders capable of playing close to the line of scrimmage without getting burned deep. It will feature what is now a rather experienced secondary.

Three of Tech's top four corners in 2010 were either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Tre' Porter and Jarvis Phillips were put in difficult situations but are now battle-tested. They padded their tackle numbers by keeping receivers in front of them, but they also combined for five interceptions and 16 break-ups. Throw in another sophomore corner, Eugene Neboh and a host of experienced safeties – Cody Davis, converted corner D.J. Johnson, and Brett Dewhurst– and it's pretty easy to spot the strength of the 2011 Tech defense. And, if you're going to have a strength in the Big 12, the secondary is a pretty good place to start.

It’s the front six that will have the most questions to answer. Against the run, Texas Tech was laregly able to minimize teams’ effectiveness but found itself occasionally prone to explosive missteps. The pass rush was an issue for Tech last year; with little perception of risk, opponents attacked the Red Raiders with the pass, especially on passing downs. With the departure of Brian Duncan, it remains unclear whether or not the pass rush will improve, especially in a 4-2-5 setup that values leverage more than negative plays. The key could be junior defensive end Scott Smith, who enters the season suspended indefinitely. He was an undersized playmaker last year in limited time, and nobody else has really proven themselves in this regard. If Smith isn't the answer, Red Raiders fans had better hope they find one soon.

SERIES SPOTLIGHT: OCTOBER 25, 2003 (Mizzou 62, Texas Tech 31)

No player on any team during the 2003 season ran up a day like Smith enjoyed against Texas Tech on Oct. 25. He needed only 19 carries to shred the Red Raiders for 291 yards, the NCAA high for that season and just 17 yards shy of the single-game NCAA record for quarterbacks. He could have gone for more yardage, but five times he had to cut runs short — in the end zone.

Smith’s final carry that day, a 61-yard touchdown, was the vintage Smith run, Connelly said.

"As soon as he faked the handoff, we started celebrating," he said. "We could tell he was going around the left side. We could tell he was going to juke the cornerback to the ground. And he was going to trot 60 yards for the touchdown. You could see it as soon as it started happening. That was the most quintessential Brad Smith play I can remember."

-- "The Man Who Made It All Possible," The Columbia Tribune

This was by no means the biggest win of the Brad Smith era, but it was the most Brad Smith-esque game. The zone reads were devastating, the defense was swarming, Zach Abron was rumbling, and the Tigers just could not stop putting points on the board. In all, Mizzou gained 597 yards on 79 plays (7.6 per play); Abron added 139 rushing yards to Smith's 291, and Mizzou built a 34-10 halftime lead. As was customary in the Leach era, Tech didn't lay down -- they scored two third-quarter touchdowns to cut the lead to 10, but three fourth-quarter touchdown runs by Smith, including the 61-yard jaunt mentioned above, allowed Mizzou to coast.

FOOTBALL STUDY HALL

The Texas Tech Red Raiders And Survival

As with a lot of teams I've been previewing lately, I think Tech might be a year away from being a truly stellar football team, but while they will potentially suffer through a lot more ups and downs in 2011 ... the 'ups' should be rather impressive. They will probably knock off somebody like a Texas A&M or Oklahoma State (they get both at home) while losing to somebody relatively unimpressive. (Then again, getting Iowa State, Kansas State and Nevada at home might preclude some of the drop-offs ... don't forget that Tech has potentially the best homefield advantage in the country.) Because of home field and a reasonably friendly schedule (as friendly as a schedule can be with the phrases "at Oklahoma" and "at Texas" involved), Tech shouldn't have much problem reaching bowl eligibility and a 17th consecutive non-losing season, but any aspirations beyond that will probably be put on hold for another year.

Tommy Tuberville inherited a difficult situation, replacing an extremely popular coach who had won at a rather high level for Tech. With his recent recruiting success, he could begin to put some pressure on both the conference's known powers (Oklahoma, Texas) and assumed powers (A&M). In the meantime, however, 2011 will probably be another year of establishing an identity and simply surviving.

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