To those outside of Double T Nation, Texas Tech’s rise to the top of college football this year is unexpected, ludicrous, a Cinderella story at best. But to those of us who have been following Texas Tech football and the transformation that it has taken under Mike Leach, this story is one of deliberate steps, building on one another. A success story not by happenstance, but one that has been years in the making and anticipated by the Fans of Texas Tech football. Let’s take a minute to remember from whence we came.
2004 – A rough year in the Big XII south for Texas Tech. Losses to Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M left the Red Raiders 5-3 in conference and 7-4 overall. However, the potential for the Red Raiders could be seen in a dominating win over Cal, ranked #9 but dejected over being slighted by the BCS and relegated to the Holiday Bowl. Like previous years, much of the recruiting class (20% of a very large class) is made up of Junior College transfers. A great way to quickly fill holes, but hard to build a team around. Only a handful of this class, now seniors, make the 2 deep roster today: Shannon Woods, Darcel McBath, L.A. Reed, Anthony Hines, Jake Ratliff, Eric Morris, and the star of the class a 4-star recruit from 4A Ennis High School, Graham Harrell, signed a letters of intent to play for Leach.
2005 – A better year. A 9-2 regular season finish with losses to Texas (who would go on to win the national championship) and OklahomaState put the Red Raiders in the Cotton Bowl for the first time in 10 years to face Alabama, who won the contest 13-10. This was the third year in a row that a Senior QB would lead the team for a single season. This is also the first full year where the entire team was made of Leach era recruits The Air Raid was firmly entrenched. The recruiting class was small, but featured only one JC transfer. The star of the class was McKinner Dixon. Louis Vasquez, Edward Britton, Brent Nickerson, Brandon Carter, Marlon Winn, Sandy Riley, Rylan Hale, and Kobey Lewis also joined the team. Graham Harrell saw playing time as the backup QB to Cody Hodges.
2006 – A rebuilding year. Graham Harrell secured the starting QB slot as a sophomore. A 7-5 regular season finish (4-4 in conference) with no remarkable wins was most notable for losing to Texas after going up 21-0 in the first quarter. The highlight of the season was a remarkable comeback from a 31 point deficit against Minnesota in the Insight bowl. The 2006 recruiting class was much larger than 2005 and featured thirteen 3* and seven 4* recruits. Michael Crabtree, an overlooked 2* recruit who played QB and basketball in high school but projected as a wide receiver, joined the team. The list of current starters from this class is long and distinguished. This is the most successful recruiting class to date.
2007 – A somewhat disappointing year. To the outsider, this year looked to be a chance for Texas Tech to move beyond the middle of the pack and perhaps break out. A returning starter at quarter back and strong recruiting made the season look promising. However, disciplinary issues limited the play of Shannon Woods, and Baron Batch was out with an injury, making the offense rely almost exclusively on the passing game. Difficulties on the defensive side of the ball led to the firing of the defensive coordinator mid-season and promoting assistant Ruffin McNeill into the position. A home victory over #4 Oklahoma was the marquee win of the season. The contributions of RS FR Michael Crabtree cannot be underestimated in salvaging the season. The Red Raiders finished the regular season 8-4 and were selected for the Gator bowl where they posted a victory over #20 Virginia, which pushed them into the top 25. Three 4* and sixteen 3* recruits signed up, several of whom are seeing playing time in 2008, along with anohter surprizing 2* recruit, Colby Whitlock..
2008 – 10-0 to this point. Back-to-back victories over 2 top 10 teams. Ranked for the entire season, most of it in the top 10. I could name the entire starting lineup and most of the second string as outstanding performers. The year started with many questions to answer: How would the supposedly improved defense perform? Could Harrell and Crabtree repeat the statistically phenomenal season that was 2007? Could Texas Tech avoid the “bad loss” that has plagued them the past several seasons? How would they stand up to a rigorous conference schedule? Can they really compete with Texas and Oklahoma?
So far, all of these questions have been answered in the affirmative. Only one remains, and the answer will come on November 22. Looking back, the comeback win over Minnesota in 2006 was a pivotal point for Texas Tech. Everyone knew that the Tech offense could score points, but it was streaky. With a different senior at the helm every year, it was thought to be a gimmicky system that could insure a winning season, maybe the occasional upset, but never contend for a conference title in the Big XII, much less nationally. When the offense didn’t click, Tech fell flat. The 2006 Insight bowl started out proving the nay-sayers correct. But at some point during the game, the team seemed to start to believe in the system. The dramatic comeback served to prove to a young quarterback that if you trust it and everyone does their job, it will work. The rest of the team believed, too.
Over the past several years, improved recruiting has brought much needed consistency to the roster, allowed players to develop as a team, and added noticeable depth. In 2007, we saw glimpses of what this team could accomplish. The defense began to find itself, especially in the Oklahoma and Virginia games. The other-worldly production of Harrell and Crabtree in 2007 showed the power of the offense and what it could accomplish with next-level talent. But ultimately 2007 was a growing year, as much for the character of the team as for the experience. The frustration of the growing pains was obvious at times. But frustration comes from knowing that you have and can do better. It was no longer the look of doubt asking, “Can we compete?” It was the knowledge that yes, we can compete, we should have competed better, but we missed the opportunity to prove it.
The confidence inspired by the 2006 win coupled with the desire driven by the disappointment of 2007 have culminated 2008. We have seen the strengths and weaknesses, overcome the mental obstacle of beating Texas and felt the joy of that dramatic win, seen the team perform nearly flawlessly at times, and nearly watched all of our hopes disappear in a blocked extra point in overtime and in slow motion during a last minute drive as a tipped ball came down through the hands of the opposing safety, only to fall harmlessly to the ground.
I cannot predict with certainty what the next 7 weeks will bring, but I can say this: it has been an incredible time to be a Red Raider.