Team: Texas Tech Red Raiders
2014 record: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)
Recap: The Red Raiders came into last season looking to ride on the shoulders of quarterback Davis Webb after winning the Holiday Bowl in 2013. They started the season off with two wins over non-conference opponents, looking like another bowl appearance was in order for second year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. But it was not meant to be.
Tech would drop their next four games and only find two more victories over Kansas and Iowa State — the only teams to rank below the Red Raiders in the Big 12 — the rest of the season.
They looked to have taken a step backwards on both offense and defense, failing to replace playmaking tight end Jace Amaro and leading tackler Will Smith among other position leaders. Defense in particular was their downfall, giving up the third most points in the nation at 41.2 points per game.
But the season wasn’t an entire loss, in it they found their new starting quarterback, freshman Patrick Mahomes, after almost single-handedly beating Baylor on Thanksgiving weekend. Now they look to pick up where they ended and write a new chapter for this program that has seen better days.
Key player: Patrick Mahomes, So., QB
It was tempting to go with an unorthodox selection such as senior tackle Le’Raven Clark or senior running back DeAndre Washington. But Red Nation will rise and fall at the hands of their quarterback, which is Mahomes’s spot to lose.
In three games he threw for 14 touchdowns, showing he can keep up in the best of shootouts, throwing only two interceptions. If you want to win in the Big 12, you need to be able to throw to keep up with high-flying offenses like Baylor and TCU. Webb may be a better fit for Kingsbury’s spread offense, but Mahomes will allow the Red Raiders to score quick and often with his canon of an arm. If he works on his pocket awareness and improves his deep-ball even more, he’ll be a shoe-in for an all-conference selection.
Biggest strength: Offensive line
It was a tough call between the men up front or their offensive weapons, but the Red Raiders boast one of the best offensive lines in the league, featuring Le’Raven Clark at left tackle.
Clark is already garnering attention this preseason, landing on numerous All-American/Conference rosters including my own. He’s the anchor and will be protecting Mahomes’s blindside and will no doubt get most of the attention. In order to stop top defensive talents like Baylor’s Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billingsfrom making Mahomes the next Tech quarterback to exit the season early, double-teaming will be their best friend. Luckily, Clark is joined by Alfredo Morales at left guard, making them conference’s best tackle-guard combo.
They’re joined by two other all-conference selections of mine, senior center Jared Kaster and redshirt freshman tackle Justin Murphy who should surprise people this season.
Mahomes will be the attraction for this offense, but for the offense to carry this team they’ll need to win in the trenches to allow their talented running backs to keep defenses on their toes, leading DeAndre Washington to another thousand yard campaign and possibly sketch his name into an all-conference team.
Biggest weakness: Defensive Tackle
On the same note, where their offensive line will be controlling defensive fronts, the Red Raiders have a problem penetrating opposing offensive lines.
Branden Jackson and Big 12 sack leader Pete Robertson will control the edges, but the interior needs to improve to add pressure and clog running lanes after allowing over 250 rushing yards per game. Seniors Rika Levi, Keland McElrath and Demetrius Alston will be at the top of the depth chart, hopefully their experience will convert into success after a down season last fall.
But that brings up another issue, the entire front seven is comprised of seniors. After this season, they’ll be looking at rebuilding a new lineup which will be led by No. 14 defensive tackle recruit Breiden Fehoko who could have an immediate impact this season.
Most important game: @ Arkansas (Sept. 19)
Yes, the Baylor and TCU games will be very important — but what conference game isn’t? There a few things about this game that make this their vital matchup:
They’ll be facing the aforementioned conference foes on a neutral site (Baylor) and on their home turf (TCU), whereas this week 3 matchup they find themselves traveling into SEC territory. Arkansas is a potential top 25 team, so if they can get past this team, all the more power to Tech not to mention helping the Big 12’s weak non-conference slate.
This will also give us our first look at if this Texas Tech team has improved as much as many prognosticators are expecting. As noted before, their run defense was historically bad, and going against one of the premier rushing teams will really be a test. If they can stop the duo of thousand yard rushers — in Arkansas no doubt — it will be time to expect anything from this Red Raiders squad.
Best-case scenario: 9-3 (6-3)
Going off of the Arkansas game, Tech opens the season 3-0 after beating the Razorbacks. History likes to repeat itself and much like TCU coming out of nowhere last season to beat Oklahoma in week 4 at home, the Red Raiders surprise the Horned Frogs in Lubbock in a shootout. Maybe this won’t be the case, but if they’re for real, they have to beat one of the defending champions. It’s easy to see them walking away with the Baylor matchup as well. One or the other, but not both.
Worst-case scenario: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)
Here they finish just as they did last season, ahead of only Iowa State and an anticipated historically bad Kansas team. Things definitely could go worse, but this is assuming Mahomes goes down half way through the season and the offense never operates the same without him.
Early prediction: 7-5 (5-4)
Mark my words, Tech becomes bowl eligible and nearly takes TCU and Baylor by surprise, sneaking into the top 25 at some point this season. Kingsbury puts together a remarkable offense that is able to make their own pace and not just keep up with other teams thanks to a defense made up of ten juniors and seniors.