2008 was supposed to be the year Texas Tech made the leap. Contrarian offensive guru Mike Leach had all the pieces in place for the Air Raid attack to flourish. The move in midseason 2007 to put Ruffin McNeil in charge seemingly transformed Tech's defense overnight. Coming off a strong finish the year before, numerous preseason prognostications put the Red Raiders in the top 10.
By many measures, Leach's team had its best year in 2008 since he arrived in Lubbock. Tech tied with Oklahoma and Texas for the Big 12 South division crown. The Raiders beat the Longhorns in one of the most exciting games of the season. Offensive stars Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree received numerous individual accolades. Tech ended the year with an 11-2 record and ranked No. 12 in both major polls.
In the aggregate, it all sounds pretty good. Yet, what really made the Red Raiders of 2008 any different from their predecessors under Leach?
- Tech pasted a tissue-soft out-of-conference schedule of Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and Massachusetts. Nothing new about that.
- The Raiders pulled off a big win in Lubbock over a quality opponent--Texas, in this case. Seen that one before.
- Leach's O rolled up some gaudy numbers. Old hat at this point.
- Tech's allegedly improved D gave up points in bunches. Very familiar.
- Despite a supposedly newfound toughness, the Raiders were outmuscled--badly--by more physical opponents Oklahoma and Ole Miss. Same old story.
The brutal beating administered by the Rebels in the Cotton Bowl seemed particularly telling, as Ole Miss moved the ball at will against Tech's sieve-like defense. Leach's team looked soft, small and defensively undisciplined that day. That certainly didn't seem any different from the past.
In reality, about the best thing that can be said for 2008 is that in a top-heavy conference, Tech didn't drop any games to clearly inferior opponents. It's a step forward for sure. However, the Raiders' performances in their losses suggested that underneath the shiny record, little had changed.
It may seem nit-picky to criticize a team coming off arguably its best season ever. It is. Such is life for the country's top college football programs. And for all the hype about Leach's wacky persona and innovative, no-holds-barred offense, last season did little in Homerism's eyes to alter the perception of Tech's place below the powers in college football's pecking order. And the gap remains relatively wide.
Especially after the soap opera that played out as he negotiated a new contract this offseason, the pressure should be on Leach to put together a team that looks and feels like a national title contender. If not 2009, then it needs to happen pretty soon. It's easy to lose patience with a novelty act, no matter how many copies of Geronimo's death certificate he may own.