Like many obsessed college football fans around the country, the summer tends to be the most anti-climactic season of the year for me.
Sure, I enjoy spending some nice evenings sailing on Lake Pontchartrain and taking the annual vacation, but once the College World Series is over, I end up sailing right into the Bermuda Triangle of the sports calendar.
So when mid-June rolls around, the most exciting thing I do is roll down to the local Borders Book Store and look for the new college football preview magazines.
After thumbing through a lot of the predictable blather, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Texas Tech Red Raiders were in almost everybody's Top 20 poll. Many even have the boys from Lubbock competing for the Big 12 Championship, and possibly a BCS Bowl.
As the summer drew on, and I started to pour over the many articles and blogs that were developing about the 2008 season, and I noticed a pattern forming among many of the so called Big 12 experts. They all seemed to be indignant about the love that Texas Tech was getting this preseason, and downright scoffed at the idea of them winning the Big 12.
So the first thing I wanted to look for among these negative nannies was a common denominator of reasons to downplay the Red Raiders' expectations this year.
Most seemed to point to the fact that Texas Tech hasn't won an outright conference championship since 1955, and others put the spotlight on Tech's reputation for fielding weak defensive units that never match up to the high-powered offensive system that Mike Leach brought to the program.
Others used what they described as a "lack of tradition" at Texas Tech.
Well, I wasn't buying any of that garbage. Maybe they had a point about the last several years of Texas Tech defense, but let's give credit where it is due.
First, these guys don't play in a lay down conference nor do they have a cake schedule like some of our friends a little further to the west. The Big 12 is tough and packed with talent year in and year out.
Second, Texas Tech has to compete for recruits with the two intraconference big boys in their home state. And let's face it, when it comes to recruiting, Oklahoma might as well be located in the state of Texas as well.
Finally, let's look at the "sentiment" that Texas Tech somehow has a lack of tradition. This is where I really had to take issue with these "experts" since they strike me as Big 12 homers who didn't want to let the new kid sit at the lunch table. Besides, nobody can accuse me of being of being a Texas Tech hack (everyone knows I'm an LSU hack).
Everybody who knows me or reads my columns knows that I love college towns that love their football teams. I've been to college campuses all over the country, and nothing fires me up more than meeting rabid fans of football teams I previously knew little to nothing about. My first trip to Lubbock, Texas, was one of the best examples to describe this kind of experience.
In the fall of 2004, my wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) accepted an internship at Texas Tech University as part of requirement to her Ph.D. program. I flew into Lubbock and the first thing I noticed was that the town had no trees. Not a good start. But as we drove around, we eventually came to the university.
Now, I have been to Austin and College Station and I couldn't believe that there was another university in the same state that was this big. Complete with a Law School and a Medical School, this place was not only beautiful but was a world-class institution.
It was the day before the Texas Tech vs. TCU game and people around town were decked out in their red and black. They kept shaking their hands at each other with their thumbs and index fingers pointed out while saying something.
I asked my wife, "What did that guy say?" She replied, "Get your guns up!" I said, "What does that mean?" She replied while making the same gesture with her hand, "Get your guns up! That's Tech's cheer." I thought, "Wow. That's different."
On our way out of the campus gates, the guard in the guard shack stuck her hand out and gave us the "Get Your Guns Up" sign. At the sight of this, I knew I was in a real college town.
I found out that the game was an early Saturday kickoff and since LSU wasn't playing until later in the afternoon, I thought that maybe I'd check out a Texas Tech game.
We were in the store getting a few things and my wife suggested that I should buy a Tech hat for the game. I started to, but then decided that I would just wear a red shirt and try to blend in.
We headed for some lunch over at Spanky's, a college-town joint if there ever was one. It's basically a two-story burger joint right across the street from the football stadium with an upstairs balcony where you can eat out in the fresh, dry air of West Texas.
The menu said their specialty was their cheese sticks. I had never heard of cheese sticks being a specialty before so we got an order. Well, cheese sticks is a deceiving name for these things. Picture a Chinese egg roll stuffed with mozzarella cheese. They were about as fat as three of my fingers and as long as my whole hand.
With an appetizer like this, I was afraid to see the entree. Nevertheless, a trip to Lubbock isn't complete without stopping at Spanky's.
I woke up the next morning with an extra pound of mozzarella cheese still in my gut and stumbled over to the television set to catch ESPN's College GameDay. After watching for about an hour, I headed over toward campus.
When I was approaching Jones Stadium, I remember thinking that for such a big campus the stadium sure seemed undersized.
When I walked in I realized that there was a whole lower level that is below ground and surrounds the field, which is well below street level. You just don't see this kind of thing in Louisiana; we even have to bury our dead above the ground.
The stadium was packed with 50,000-plus and the place was rocking pretty hard considering it was before noon. Talk about a baptism by fire, the Red Raiders fell behind 21-0 in the first half.
It was like that feeling you get when you walk up to a craps table with a hundred bucks and walk away broke before the waitress even brings you your first drink. Quarterback Sonny Cumbie looked like he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn and the defense was on the back of a milk carton. The crowd stayed fired up though.
In the second half, what can I say? It was magic time. The Red Raiders erased their 21-point deficit in no time and the Mike Leach "Fun and Get Your Guns Up" offense was in full swing. There was another touchdown. Then another. I was incredulous.
Little did I know that I was witnessing the biggest come-from-behind win in Texas Tech history. The Red Raiders prevailed 70-35. I was a believer, and after the game I went back to the store and bought that Texas Tech hat.
Now, back to my analysis. Let's address this weak defensive reputation that Tech has wrapped around their necks. Nobody knows about this problem more than Mike Leach, as evidenced by his unprecedented move of replacing his defensive coordinator after a close loss to Oklahoma State last September.
Under the new defensive chief Ruffin McNeil, the Red Raiders led the Big 12 in total defense through their remaining eight games. Capping off the 2007 season with a Gator Bowl victory over a stout Virginia squad, I'd say that this Texas Tech team was pretty focused.
Oh, did I mention that Texas Tech is bringing back the first freshman ever to win the Biletnikoff award? I'm talking of course about the sensational wide receiver Michael Crabtree. But how can we not mention the senior gunslinger Graham Harrell?
Harrell threw for over 4,000 yards last year and is one of 18 starters to return to the Red Raider lineup. Did I mention that both of these guys are on the Heisman watch list?
Strengths: The Harrell-to-Crabtree connection will anchor what will be one of the most prolific offenses in all of college football this year. The Red Raider defense has found new life under coordinator Ruffin McNeil and is expected to keep improving.
Weaknesses: Texas Tech loses their money man in placekicker Alex Trlica, who converted 233 consecutive extra point attempts in his career. His replacement is likely to be true freshman Donnie Carona.
Prediction: Go ask anybody in Tuscaloosa or South Bend if "tradition" wins any ball games for you. The truth is that it's fun to talk about, but ultimately, it's only a lame comeback on a message board. With the traditional powerhouses in the Big 12 rebuilding this year, the conference is wide open.
If Ruffin McNeil can come close to keeping up with Mike Leach's high powered offense, this could be a very big year for the Red Raiders. Consistency is key, an art they haven't quite been able to master in recent years.
The first thing they have to do is win the Texas State Championship against in-state foes Texas and Texas A&M. The final test will be when they travel to Norman to face Bob Stoops and his reloaded Oklahoma Sooners.
Like I said, it is a wide open Big 12 this year and the Red Raiders have enough talent to take it all. By the way, if you still think there isn't a great tradition at Texas Tech, go to a game. Then go buy a hat.
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