A random look at the Red Raiders' prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree were undoubtedly the best passer and receiver, respectively, Mike Leach has had at his disposal in nine years at Tech, though that's rather hard to quantify -- finishing in the top-10 nationally in passing, total and scoring offense, as the Raiders did again last year for the sixth time in seven years with the fifth different 4,000-yard quarterback and eighth different 1,000-yard receiver since 2002, is just par for the course in these parts. At this point, it would be more stunning if new QB Taylor Potts and some combination of Edward Britton, Lyle Leong, Detron Lewis and Tramain Swindall at receiver didn't hit the same stratospheric marks.
Last year's offensive line was also Leach's best, featuring five enormous veterans who'd logged 49 combined starts in 2007 and made Harrell one of the best-protected men in America: Tech allowed one measly sack per game on more than 50 attempts, and for most of the season the ratio was even better than that. Going into the do-or-die showdown with Oklahoma in November, Harrell had been sacked all of four times in the Raiders' 10-0 start, two of those in the win over Texas, the most sack-happy defense in the country. Needless to say, the last three games were pretty ugly -- after the Sooners brought Harrell down four times and generally harassed him right out of Heisman contention in a 65-21 blowout, Baylor sacked him twice in a near-upset to close the regular season, and Ole Miss had another pair of takedowns while forcing Harrell into a pair of interceptions in the Cotton Bowl upset, one returned for a touchdown. The formula for opposing defenses is clear: There is practically no chance of keeping the offense within striking distance without generating the same kind of pressure.
The line's late struggles are more troubling with the departure of the left side, Rylan Reed and Louis Vasquez, All-Big 12 picks who started every game the last two years, and center Stephen Hamby, who started every game last year. Brandon "Mankind" Carter, who looks like the first 370-pound member of Misfits, is moving from his familiar position at right guard to the crucial hole at left tackle; between Carter and fellow bookend Marlon Winn, the interior line will be entirely new.
What's the Same. For years, the "key" to a Raider breakthrough was supposed to be the defense -- with this offense, if it could ever slow anyone down, Tech would be unstoppable. So the most bizarre aspect of last year's run -- remember, the Raiders were No. 2 with two weeks to go in the regular season -- was that it came despite a general regression in the defense. Viz:
Remember too that Ole Miss put up 47 on 469 yards in the bowl game. A lot of the difference is attributable to the 625-yard, 65-point orgy Oklahoma laid on them in Norman last year, but even if you're willing to "take away" the massive egg laid in the biggest game in school history, that's not an encouraging trend, and becomes even less so when you account for attrition -- the Raiders return seven starters, but among the departures are the two best pass rushers of Leach's tenure, league sack leader Brandon Williams (early draft departure) and McKinner Dixon (indefinite suspension), and two productive safeties, Darcel McBath and Daniel Charbonnet, who were both voted all-conference. The top three reserves on the back end were also seniors, meaning the Raiders are starting at least one freshman (redshirt Cody Davis) and, with five newcomers and no experience among the returnees, possibly two. If this group holds Big 12 offenses below 28 points per game for the first time since '05, coordinator Ruffin McNeill will deserve the raise he picked up this offseason.
Tell me more about this curious "hand-off." Overall, Tech didn't turn to the run more often than it has in the past, but it was certainly more effective on the ground, cobbling together almost 118 yards per game on 4.8 per carry, both easily the best numbers of Leach's tenure. And there were even times the Raiders became practically balanced, notably the first half against Texas, when Barron Batch and Shannon Woods confounded the 'Horns' teed-up pass rushers with a steady dose of effective first down runs. Batch and Woods both went over 700 yards, making them Leach's most prolific running back duo by many miles, and early returns show Batch shaping up as the best runner in Lubbock since forgotten late nineties Heisman darkhorse Ricky Williams (yeah, the other Ricky Williams from Texas) -- his 6.8 yards per carry led Big 12 regulars.
I don't know if there's a will to establish the running game as anything more than a change of pace, a diversion to the high-flying pyrotechnics that define the system, but with three starting linemen over 325 pounds, there's probably a way.
Overly Optimistic Reasonably Cautious Post-Spring Chatter. Mike Leach used words like "sloppy" and "average" to describe Taylor Potts' performance in the spring, which means, what, we're only store for 3,800 yards and 35 touchdown passes this year? Potts does not come as highly recommended by recruiting gurus as Harrell did (nor do any of his receivers when compared to the hype for Crabtree), but he his taller (6'5" to Harrell's 6'2"), reportedly has a stronger arm and may ultimately be more suited to the next level, where Harrell isn't having much luck. Potts can win the comparison if he has a better transition year into the starting role -- Harrell, Leach's first non-senior starter since Kliff Kingsbury in 2002 -- occasionally struggled in 2006, leading three-point and six-point efforts at TCU and Colorado, respectively, and a second half shutout after a quick start at Oklahoma. The overall numbers were still there (4,555 yards, 38 touchdowns), but with the stakes raised for the entire program, Potts can't afford that kind of inconsistency.
Best-Case. This year's schedule shapes up very similarly to last year's, increasing in difficulty from cupcakes in September to Big 12 middleweights in October and the heavier hitters in November, with one big exception: The date with Texas was moved from November to September to ensure a primetime audience, likely cutting short any chance for a another eight or nine-game winning streak to start the year -- the Raiders haven't won in Austin since 1997, the year before Mack Brown took over UT, and this version of the Longhorns is unusually stacked, even for them. Otherwise, though, an 8-1 start heading into a mid-November date at Oklahoma State is very possible, maybe probable if Tech can avoid a slip against Nebraska or Kansas. By the time the Cowboys and Sooners come up on the schedule, the offense should be rolling at full-tilt, which opens up a small window for a return trip to the Cotton Bowl at 10-2.
Worst-Case. The potentially devastating early game may not be Texas, who'll be expected to thump the Raiders at home, but the next week, at Houston, another prolific passing offense that could throw the entire season into disarray with an upset. Besides the Oklahoma schools, Tech will also be vulnerable to the offenses from Nebraska, Kansas and even Baylor -- the Huskers and Bears both took the Raiders to the hilt last year in Lubbock. If Tech drops two of those three against the middle of the pack, the once-standard 7-5 regular season will seem like a painful regression.
Non-Binding Forecast. The biggest change here isn't in personnel but in expectations: Leach's tenure has been a steady, uninterrupted, uphill climb, culminating in rare wins over Texas and Oklahoma in back-to-back seasons and last year's run to the top-five. There is no way to extend that sense of optimism to this season, when the Raiders are universally tabbed in fourth place in the South division; if UT, OU and Oklahoma State are all likely losses, even a perfect run elsewhere will only be good for the fringe of the top-25. And how likely is an otherwise perfect run for a team that lost to middling editions of Missouri and Oklahoma State and rock-bottom editions of Colorado and Oklahoma State since 2005?
This season is critical for establishing a "normal" baseline for the program: Is the '08 leap sustainable at all, or is a return to the 4-4/5-3 range in conference games inevitable? Almost everyone seems to think the latter, which is rational until proven otherwise. The schedule will let the Raiders sleepwalk into another bowl game, but short of an unlikely sweep of Houston, Nebraska and Kansas, it will probably be of the Alamo variety.
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Previous Premature Assessments: Fresno State, Clemson, Kansas State, Colorado State, Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Kentucky, Texas A&M, East Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Connecticut, Purdue, Tennessee, California, Auburn, Nebraska, Miami, Illinois, Arkansas.