Traveling west along US-82 earlier this summer, I pulled over at a rest stop just east of Benjamin, TX, where weary travelers can sit under picnic shelters and contemplate a rugged Mars-scape of red dirt gullies and jagged low hills. An elderly man in a straw cowboy hat and a Texas Tech T-shirt was exercising his little Jack Russel Terrier near where I sat, and I had to ask:
“How do you feel about the Red Raiders this season, sir?”
The man stopped walking and looked at me for a minute before answering, “I don’t think that coach of theirs has the players’ respect.” He shook his head and said no more.
A few weeks later, a troubling rumor emerged regarding Texas Tech on the message boards of some premium recruiting websites: recruits visiting Texas Tech were told by current Tech players that Matt Wells wouldn’t be the Red Raiders’ head coach for much longer. This rumor should only be given as much credence as any unsourced, unconfirmed rumor, but if true, any talk of Texas Tech reaching a bowl game this season might be in vain. Without player buy-in, even the most talented roster is in for a rough season.
According to most, the outlook for Texas Tech this season isn’t very bright, and another Red Raider finish in the bottom three of the conference is expected. However, others see a good deal of promise in Texas Tech, including a possible finish in the top half of the Big 12 this season.
Trying to see in August what lies ahead for most Big 12 football teams in the fall is often like trying to count distant oil jacks from within the stinging clouds of a West Texas haboob: nothing is clear, and things often appear worse than they really are. But with a little patience and educated guesswork, a reasonable picture can sometimes be conjured through the Mars-red clouds of sand and dust. In that spirit, here’s a look at the Red Raiders’ outlook for 2021, and why I think they just might make a bowl game and save Matt Wells’ job.
Texas Tech’s Offense
As HCS and Pete Mundo reported earlier this summer, Matt Wells insists there’s an ongoing competition for the starting quarterback position in Lubbock this fall. However, everyone expects Oregon transfer Tyler Shough to be named the starter over Henry Colombi as Shough has received considerable draft buzz, and some believe he could be a first-round draft pick in 2022.
Assuming Shough is the starter, and that is a reasonable assumption despite what Wells says, Tech should be in very good hands under center. On the other hand, despite the buzz, there’s no reason to believe that Shough can single-handedly turn the Red Raiders around. He’s going to need a lot of help, and Tech may have just enough playmakers around him to give Big 12 defenses plenty of problems.
The biggest concern for Texas Tech’s offense at the moment is the health of the team’s two-time leading rusher, running back SaRodorick Thompson, who underwent surgery in the offseason and has yet to be cleared to play. Thompson’s ability to fully recover and return to the form of the last two seasons is going to be critical for the Red Raiders’ success this season.
Behind Thompson are running backs Xavier White, Tahj Brooks, and Chadarius Townsend, who all logged significant playing time last season. However, only White showed the versatility and explosiveness to be a key contributor last season as he averaged seven yards a carry while picking up 436 yards on 62 rushing attempts and caught 21 passes for another 104 yards. Texas Tech might be able survive without Thompson at full strength, but to be the bowl team Tech can be, Thompson must return to form.
The outlook gets much brighter at the receiver position. Erik Ezukanma is back at wide receiver after catching 46 passes on 72 targets for 748 yards and six touchdowns last season. Who will start opposite of Ezukanma is still up in the air, but the options look promising, including the wizened Troy transfer Kaylon Geiger and true freshman phenom, Jerand Brandley.
Reports from Tech’s fall camp indicate that the inside receivers have looked especially sharp so far. Everyone is excited about Myles Price who exploded as a true freshman late last season. Burning track speed is the standard for Tech’s inside pass catchers, and McLane Mannix and Dalton Rigdon will provide plenty of it along with Price.
The offensive line has a core group of veteran players that should make up the starting five and a couple of versatile key backups to provide some depth, but losing right guard Jack Anderson, who really stepped up his run-blocking last season, is going to hurt. Overall, the O-line looks to be solid enough, but there is plenty of room for growth, and depth is likely to be a major concern unless the unit can avoid injuries.
In summary, Tech’s offense has plenty of weapons for Shough to work with and should be more explosive than last season, but it probably won’t be the juggernaut Tech fans are hoping for.
Texas Tech’s Defense
The Red Raiders have been slowly improving on the defensive side of the ball, turning what was once a glaring weakness into more and more of a contributor. However, continuing that upward climb may be a bit of a struggle this season.
A major loss is the departure of cornerback Zech McPhearson who buoyed Tech’s pass defense last season with six pass break-ups and four interceptions. However, the Red Raiders aren’t without hope at corner as they return a combined 54 starts with DaMarcus Fields and Adrian Frye and are bringing in reinforcements through transfer portal in Malik Dunlap from NC State and Rayshad Williams from UCLA.
Safety Marquis Waters, a super senior transfer from Duke, should also help to shore-up the pass defense. He was one of the ACC’s top rated pass defenders for most of his career at Duke but struggled a bit in last season’s odd Covid year. I expect Waters to correct what went wrong last season and provide Tech with some much-needed experience and execution in pass coverage.
Another major loss to the pass defense is edge rusher Eli Howard, who, when available last season, gave Tech its best chance at getting sacks and pressuring quarterbacks into bad throws. The D-line, however, should be one of the strengths of Tech’s defense with two big, mean interior linemen Tony Bradford and Jaylon Hitchings returning to rotate at the nose-tackle position and keep the pressure on opposing offensive lines. The rest of the three-man front has plenty of depth and experience as well, so if an edge rusher can emerge to fill the shoes left by Howard, good things are going to happen up front for Tech.
The linebacking corps is the clear strength of Tech’s defense. Colin Schooler returns after proving his worth in pass coverage and as a run stopper last season while netting four sacks playing both middle and weak-side linebacker. Krishon Merriweather and Riko Jeffers are also back to create one of the Big 12’s biggest, most effective, and most experienced linebacking units. These guys are versatile and hit hard, and they will be the hub of Tech’s defense this season.
In summary, Tech’s defense is a mixture of solid veterans and players that will need a little time to acclimate and make their marks. However, if the secondary can improve even a little from last season and a consistent pass-rusher can be found to replace Howard, the linebackers are good enough to keep Tech from returning to its old defensive habits.
Texas Tech’s Schedule
Chronological likely wins: Stephen F. Austin, FIU, at Kansas
The Red Raiders have a nice base of three nearly guaranteed wins. The game at Kanas should be the trickiest of these three, but I don’t foresee KU being good enough by mid-October to stop Tech’s passing attack.
Chronological possible wins: at Houston, K-State, at Baylor
The game at Houston is a virtual must-win for the Red Raiders, and coming right out of the gate, it won’t be an easy win by any means. But if Tech is going to get to a bowl game this season, it’s going to need to be good enough to find a way to win against in H-town.
Getting K-State at home is a huge break for Tech. The Cats have won five straight in the series and nine of the last ten, so beating a ball-control team like K-State that seems almost like it was designed for the sole purpose of beating Tech won’t be easy. However, K-State has its vulnerabilities on defense, and if Tech can force the Cats into a shoot-out, a win is possible.
The game at Baylor will come down to how explosive Tech’s offense can be. If the Red Raiders can get rolling on offense and light up the scoreboard, the Bears aren’t likely to be able to keep up.
Chronological chances for a big upset at home: TCU, Iowa State, Oklahoma State
Tech is probably going to have to catch Iowa State or TCU napping and having a bad day to have a chance to win, but if the offense can catch its stride in either contest, the opportunity may be there for a huge upset.
Playing Oklahoma State is a different story. For whatever reason, the Red Raiders have shown the ability to exploit the Cowboys’ pass defense in recent contests and have scored 41 or more against the Pokes in the last three meetings, including a win 45-35 in Lubbock in 2019 and a 41-17 drubbing of OSU in Stillwater in 2018. Even against OSU’s best defense in years last season, Tech was able to hang 44 in a losing effort that saw the Cowboys escape with a six-point win.
A chance for a big road upset: at Texas
By all rights, Tech should have beaten Texas last season. The fact that the Red Raiders allowed Texas to make a miraculous comeback in the 4th quarter to force overtime and steal the victory is a stain on Wells’ record as much as it was a testimony to the ability of quarterback Sam Ellinger to put Texas on his back and will the team to victory.
Texas has won ten of the last twelve in the series, but Tech’s two wins over that span, in 2015 and 2017, both came in Austin. Catching Texas in late September this season might give Tech a glimmer of hope as the Longhorns will still be breaking in a new signal caller and trying find the groove in the new head coach Steve Sarkisian’s system. Texas looks like the better team on paper, but Tech is going to want the win more, so with a few breaks and an inspired performance from wire to wire, an upset is possible for the Red Raiders.
I don’t expect Texas Tech to make a big leap up into the top half of the league this season, but I do think the Red Raiders can walk a margin thinner than Mars’ atmosphere to six wins, a bowl game, and another year for Matt Wells. A lot of things would have to come together just right for Tech to exceed six wins this season, but if the team is buying what Wells is selling, the opportunity is there to take a decent step forward and make the post-season for the first time since the 2017 Birmingham Bowl.
If the line on Texas Tech wins this season is 5.5, I’m probably not betting the over or the under, but if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I’d take the over.