As the saying goes, change can be a good thing.
However, change can also be a scary proposition for those who are satisfied with the way things currently are.
During the Mike Leach era, fans of the Texas Tech Red Raiders knew what they were getting each year. The passing game would be potent, a ton of points would be scored, and it would be up to the defense to just bend and not break.
The only troubling questions were which passing records this year’s quarterback would break, who the Red Raiders would upset, and whether the team would finally go a year without losing to a team they shouldn’t.
This Sunday, when the Texas Tech football team takes the field against the SMU Mustangs, that era will finally be laid to rest. A new one, the Tommy Tuberville era, will finally begin.
This changing of the guard brings new questions, ones the Red Raider faithful haven’t had to ponder for some time.
Will the players respond to a completely revamped coaching staff? How much of the past decade’s famous spread attack will remain intact? Will the new 3-4 scheme make the Red Raiders a more respectable team on the defensive side of the ball?
The most pressing issue, however, may be whether or not Taylor Potts is the correct choice at quarterback.
Potts, a fifth-year senior from Abilene, beat out fellow senior Steven Sheffield for the starting job. Last season, Sheffield became something of a folk hero when he took over for an injured Potts in a game against New Mexico. He then proceeded to annihilate the Lobo defense in what was at the time a close game.
This made him a fan favorite.
He added to that lore when he led the Red Raiders in a 31-10 thumping of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Still, despite Sheffield’s fan support and statistical advantages in some passing categories, Potts was deemed the better fit in new offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s system.
"We just felt like Taylor had a better grasp in terms of consistency," said Tuberville shortly after the decision was made official. “I mean, this wasn’t rocket science.”
Obviously, Tuberville is looking to improve on a Tech offense that ranked tied for 99th nationally in turnovers last year. The coaching staff feels that Potts is better at taking care of the ball.
After a 2009 season that could at best be described as a struggle and a spring that he missed the entirety of due to an injured throwing hand, the 6'5", 222-pound quarterback has had an excellent summer. He won the “Air It Out” competition against several fellow college quarterbacks at the prestigious Manning Passing Academy and then was named to the Davey O’Brien Award watch list.
He also changed his jersey number to 12. It would seem that Potts is completely wiping his slate clean from last season.
Along with the coaching staff, his teammates are also encouraged with the improvements he’s made on the football field. That includes the man Potts will be sharing the backfield with, senior running back Baron Batch.
"He went through a lot last year, a lot of things that a lot of players didn't have to go through," Batch said. "He was booed off the field, no one wanted to see him in there and he never complained one time. Going through all that has made him that much of a better player and a quarterback."
If Taylor Potts can transfer his offseason successes onto the playing field and also ignore the long shadow Sheffield will be casting on his position, then the Red Raiders could enjoy a substantial amount of success this year.
One problem that Potts could run into early in the season is a lack of protection. The Red Raiders only return two starters to an offensive line that ranked 89th in the nation in sacks allowed. That could be problematic against an SMU front seven that is returning five starters from last season.
Neal Brown addressed the issue when speaking to the media this past Sunday, saying that only seven linemen had earned a spot in the rotation.
“I don’t sleep real well at night knowing that,” Brown said, “but it’s seven. Hopefully we can get it to eight or nine.”
He continued, “I feel real good about our first five. I think there’s going to be some bumps in the road, just because some of those guys up there haven’t played a ton. I don’t think it’s going to be smooth sailing for a few games, but those guys are talented and we’ve had that core five together for about 10 practices in a row, so they’re starting to get a little more cohesive.”
The SMU defense should be a tough test for Texas Tech’s inexperienced offensive line, as well as the passing game overall. The Mustangs return four of their top six tackle leaders and four of their five leaders in sacks. They also led Conference USA in passing yards per game allowed.
On the other hand, if Neal Brown’s offense is going to deliver on its promise to be more balanced, then the Texas Tech running game could thrive against an SMU defense that ranked 90th in the nation against the run last season.
While notoriously a team that rarely rushes—Texas Tech was ranked dead last in the nation in rushing play percentage in 2009—the Red Raiders could let Batch and Eric Stephens handle a decent percentage of the load while Potts and a talented receiving corps work out the kinks.
On the defensive side of the ball, Texas Tech will be faced with an SMU offense that mirrors many of the pass-happy squads the Red Raiders will face throughout the season.
The Mustang offense is arguably as potent as any other out there. SMU head coach June Jones, who previously built Hawaii into a BCS buster, is now working on doing the same in Dallas. Known for building powerful passing attacks, Jones has not disappointed in his short time as head coach.
The SMU offense, led by sophomore quarterback Kyle Padron, was 11th in passing yards per game and 36th in the nation in points scored.
This means that James Willis, Texas Tech’s new defensive coordinator, will be given a good idea of how many of the pass-happy offenses in the Big 12 are run.
Willis, who coached under Tuberville for three seasons at Auburn and was an assistant head coach on Nick Saban’s championship-winning Alabama team last season, implemented a 3-4 scheme to help a defense that ranked 76th nationally against the pass last season.
Willis promises that this year’s defense will be more aggressive and take more chances than the Red Raiders of the past few years.
Even without a ton of blitzing, Texas Tech ended the season ranked fourth nationally in sacks with 40.
Whether that means even more sacks are in store for this season, or just more big plays for the opposition, remains to be seen. However, the defense’s performance against SMU will be a good barometer for how the rest of the season will go.
Overall, expect a fun-to-watch game that may start out a little sloppy for both teams. While SMU is a team on the upswing, and Texas Tech is a team with many questions that need to be answered, the Red Raiders are still the deeper, more talented squad on paper.
It will be closer than some think, however, especially if Potts struggles early and the home crowd gets restless. This could easily be one of those games where the energy in the bleachers determines how well the teams on the field play.
Final Score: Texas Tech 31, SMU 21
One more note: SMU hasn’t beaten Texas Tech since 1986, or in other words, since the team received the NCAA’s death penalty. The Mustangs have lost every game by at least 10 points during that stretch.
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