Saturday, December 23rd, 2017.
That’s the last game the Red Raiders played. In Birmingham, Alabama, Texas Tech lost to South Florida, 34-38, in the Birmingham Bowl.
More than eight months later, the team led for the sixth consecutive season by head coach Kliff Kingsbury, will try to start its 2018 with a victory in Houston. The opponents will be the Rebels of Ole Miss, an SEC team recently afflicted by many off-field problems.
The Red Raiders have a good relationship with the first week of the season, and their last loss in the inaugural game of the season dates back to 2002 when they lost to Ohio State in Columbus, 21-45. Texas Tech’s quarterback? Kliff Kingsbury, of course.
To be fair, Ole Miss will be the first Power-5 team Texas Tech faces since 2002, as the following opening games were played against a lot of SMU (six times), group of 5 and FCS teams.
As we said previously, Ole Miss comes from a big scandal that traces to the Hugh Freeze tenure, as many violations in the recruiting process were revealed. The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions delivered some penalties that include, among many others, a multi-year Bowl ban (ending in 2018) and the possibility for the Rebels’ seniors to transfer elsewhere and play without sitting a year.
Some players, like quarterback Shea Patterson (Michigan) and some others, decided to move, but a good part of the players decided to remain in Oxford and an interesting project of rebuilding, led by head coach Matt Luke.
If Texas Tech defense is a legitimate candidate for a good season, the Rebels will be an immediate difficult test bench. In 2017 they averaged 32.8 points/game and return some outstanding players, first and foremost All-American wide receiver A.J. Brown. In 2017, only two receivers had 90 targets, a 75 percent catch rate, and 15 yards per catch: the mentioned Brown and Keke Coutee.
Ole Miss offense will heavily rely on the passing game and will be led by junior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu. The Hawaiian native saw a lot of playing time in 2017 after Patterson injured in Week 8 against LSU and had to miss the rest of the season, and made the world notice about his presence.
He outscored his predecessor in completion rate, yards/attempt, and efficiency, and added a running dangerousness that was unknown to Patterson. He will also have to help a backfield that lost the only prolific back and will mainly rely on JuCo transfer Scottie Phillips, who joined the team during the spring and overcame the (weak) competition to earn the starting job. His backup, Eric Swinney, will miss the game with mononucleosis.
Texas Tech’s secondary will consequently face a tough test, also considering that the Red Raiders will miss the expected starting cornerback Octavious Morgan Jr. for an undisclosed but consistent amount of time.
In addition, the Rebels’ offensive line is strong and experienced, and the Red Raiders will have to toil in order to put their hands on the particularly elusive Ta’amu. All that said, Ole Miss’ biggest problem will be the depth. The penalties inflicted by the NCAA, as we said, limited the scholarship and in case of injuries, there won’t be many “points from the bench” coming.
On the other side of the ball, the Rebels come from a season in which they allowed 34.6 points/game (110th of 130), and many of their main contributors left the team. The pass rush has to be invented again after defensive ends Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes were drafted, and also the two starting linebackers of their 4-2-5 system are gone.
There’s a lot of hype around outside linebacker Kevontae’ Ruggs, a true freshman who earned the starting job alongside Mohamed Sanogo, who in 2017 had 5.5 tackles in 11 games.
Also, Ole Miss’ secondary has some problems. There are many returning player, but the unit didn’t perform well in 2017, in part because of the injuries that hit many players. This is a recurring theme, but if the starters remain on the field, and that’s valid for the entire defensive group, there’s some quality. But if the backups will have to play a significant number of snaps, the Red Raiders could have an easier work.
Texas Tech faces the strongest opening opponent since a lot of time, but the game isn’t absolutely out of reach. The Red Raiders offense, probably led By McLane Carter, is untested in the passing game, but the Ole Miss secondary is the right one to face in order to increase the experience level and try to score some points. Maybe many points.
If the defense can contain the Rebels’offense, or at least limit its touchdown, so there’s a good possibility to win this first game of 2018.