Red Raiders, you can emerge from your shelters now. The sky isn’t falling.
Yesterday, Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes announced he is skipping his senior season and declaring for the NFL draft. He led the nation in passing in 2016 and set an NCAA record for most total yards in a single game against Oklahoma.
Without the playmaking ability of Mahomes that Red Raider fans have gotten accustomed to over the past two seasons, it’s not unnatural to enter a chicken little mindset.
With redshirt freshman Jett Duffey suspended from Texas Tech for the spring and summer semesters, it appears senior Nic Shimonek or redshirt sophomore McLane Carter (a transfer from Tyler JUCO) will be the starter next year.
No doubt, it will be nearly impossible for Texas Tech’s next quarterback to match the talent or production displayed by Mahomes. But whether the superstar returned to Lubbock next year or not, the Red Raider defense and their progress (or lack thereof) is the more important storyline in 2017.
Texas Tech’s defense ranked dead last, 128th out of 128, in the FBS last season. They surrendered 68 points to Arizona State, 66 to both Oklahoma and Iowa State, and 44 points or more on five additional occasions.
An offense led by Kliff Kingsbury, who was the offensive coordinator at Houston and Texas A&M before becoming Texas Tech’s head coach in 2013, has never finished worse than 25th in total offense. That was in 2014 when Tech went 4-8, rotating between an injured Davis Webb and true freshmen Vinny Testaverde Jr. and Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. Every other season, Kingsbury’s offense has finished in the top 11, even in 2013 rotating between true freshmen Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb at quarterback. When he’s had legitimate talent at the position (Case Keenum at Houston in 2011, Johnny Manziel at A&M in 2012, and Mahomes in 2015 and 2016), Kinsgbury has routinely finished in the top five in the country.
The difference between Texas Tech’s 128th ranked scoring defense (43.5 points per game) and the 103rd ranked defense of San Jose State (34.7 points per game), a 25 spot jump, is worth 8.8 points per game. That would have been enough to flip the result of four Texas Tech losses that came by one touchdown plus a conversion or less.
My point is this: Texas Tech’s offense under Kingsbury will be fine. Unless there are a bunch of injuries or the remaining quarterbacks on the roster are dreadful, the offense will be in the top 25 in the country, likely closer to the top 10. At the same time, the defense quite literally has nowhere to go but up. Finishing as the 100th ranked defense is nothing to write home about, but would likely make a bigger difference on Texas Tech’s 2017 season than whether Patrick Mahomes or Nic Shimonek or McLane Carter is the quarterback.
Think about a nice pontoon boat. There are pros and cons to the boat. The biggest pro is that it has an awesome upper deck with a water slide. The biggest con is that there’s a hole in bottom of the boat that is causing it to sink.
If you’re on that boat and you could choose to keep the water slide or to plug the hole, which one do you choose? If you make the rational choice, you lose an awesome water slide, but at least you don’t lose the entire boat.
We saw in 2016 that having the nation’s best quarterback couldn’t keep Tech from going 5-7. I’m not trying to blow smoke and say that Mahomes wasn’t a difference maker or that he won’t be missed. I’m simply saying a competent quarterback in Kingsbury’s system combined with improvements in weak spots from 2016 (i.e. offensive line play, the run game, and the defense) will result in a better team overall than a team that is deficient at nearly every position except for quarterback.
I’m not ready to predict significant improvements will be made on defense. But if we don’t see any, it doesn’t matter who the Texas Tech quarterback is.