Part of the Doc's Big 12 Week.
Taylor Potts is the heir apparent as trigger man in Mike Leach's "Air Raid" attack, and would be a good bet for every college fantasy team in the country even if he hadn't put up absurd numbers in a similarly pass-happy offense in high school and hadn't once rocked an All-America Grizzly Adams beard. Potts has three years as a backup under Leach and, therefore, a spot near the top of every relevant record book. There is no doubt about this.
How inevitable is Potts' rise to statistical glory? Of the five starters Leach has trotted out in nine years, every one has topped 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in a season; even in terms of efficiency as opposed to straight cumulative totals, they've been remarkably consistent from year to year. And only the last one in that line, Graham Harrell, had better reviews than Potts before he took over the job.
I think it's also indisputable, though, that Harrell is easily the best of Leach's quarterbacks, partly because of his slightly better numbers (Harrell set new standards at Tech last year for every significant number except completion percentage, which he set as a junior in 2007) but mainly because of the team's success -- last year's team was the best in Tech history, and Harrell's 28 wins as a starter is easily a school record. The '08 Raiders were also the first under Leach to beat two ranked opponents (that is, teams that finished in the AP's year-end top-25) in the same season, and in fact, as similar as Tech quarterbacks have appeared in the big picture, it's against the top end of the schedule that Harrell really distinguished himself the last two years:
Before going 5-2 last year, Leach's teams were 17-33 against winning teams, including the New Mexicos and Navys of the schedule. The big leap -- the difference between another 8-4/9-3 Holiday Bowl at the fringes of the polls and a co-division champion that was in line to play for a national championship well into November -- was largely the offense's ability to keep up its usual frantic pace in the critical stretch against Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State, consistency that had been absent before. (And would disappear again down the stretch, but not until the Raiders had already sealed their place as the best team Lubbock has produced.)
There are two ways to look at that. On one hand, Leach's tenure so far has been like one giant, eccentric boulder being pushed slowly up a series of increasingly steep hills: The Raiders have the longest unbroken string of success in school history (seven straight eight-win seasons), three New Year's Day bowl games in four years (including their first Jan. 1 win since 1953) and wins over Texas and Oklahoma in back-to-back seasons. They were perfect last year at home for the first time. Each successive season has presented a new hill, and the climb has continued steadily upward.
On the other hand, Harrell and Crabtree are the biggest stars in Tech history, and the odds of scaling the same heights without them are very long; this must be the inevitable season of regression. This seems to be the philosophy of the preseason polls to date, which mostly reject the Raiders as a top-25 outfit and universally pick them fourth in the division, behind "this year's Tech," Oklahoma State. Taylor Potts and his top receiver, Detron Lewis, may put up big, eye-popping stats -- and they will, without a doubt -- but given Tech's longer history, they can hardly be expected to match up with the division overlords as well as Harrell and Crabtree did. Unless the stars align for the new kids in some unforeseen, improbably way, even 4,200 yards and 35 touchdowns could feel like the first hints of stagnation in the success story.