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July 21, 2008

Texas Tech hopes to finally put it all together

MORE BIG 12 MEDIA DAYS: QB McGee has work to do | Day One Photo Gallery

KANSAS CITY, Mo. Terrain on the Texas South Plains is so flat an approaching storm can be seen from miles away.

Maybe even from years away, too.

In eight years under coach Mike Leach, Texas Tech has steadily grown and improved. Still, all that growth and improvement hasn't brought a Big 12 Conference division title. But one could be brewing.

Over the past two seasons, Texas Tech fans have looked at the '08 season as an approaching storm. They see the elements an experienced quarterback, a big-play receiver, an experienced offensive line, perhaps even an emerging defense coming together to possibly produce a drought-ending season.

"I'm always excited about the season, and as a team and as individuals, we always have high expectations every year," Leach said on Monday at Big 12 Conference Media Days. "I've never coached in a Big 12 game I didn't think we were going to win. So what that means to me is everybody needs to do their job within the scope of what it is. And if everybody does that together, has the ability to fulfill their role and sustain a level of focus for the entire season, we could have a season we're pleased with."

Obviously, Leach is taking the low-key approach. But Robert Giovannetti, a 38-year resident of Lubbock, sports-talk radio host and author of "Fearless Champions," a book chronicling the history of Texas Tech football, said the populace isn't. He said expectations and excitement are greater on the Plains than at any time since the 1970s.

"They've never had a championship team, but they feel like this is the year," Giovannetti said. "Everyone seems to think this is the year. There are still old-time fans who think Tech is snake-bit and it won't happen. But younger fans think this is the year, and everything has been pointing to the '08 season."

Similar possibilities have come up dry. The Red Raiders went 10-2 in 1976 and posted a big early victory over Texas. But they were upset by Houston and finished second in the Southwest Conference. They opened the '77 season ranked No. 8, but quarterback Rodney Allison was hurt early and the Raiders struggled to a 7-5 finish.

Tech never fully recovered from Allison's broken leg: The Red Raiders haven't seriously challenged for an outright championship since '76. In 1994, the Red Raiders finished in a five-way tie for the SWC championship (unbeaten Texas A&M was on probation and ineligible for the title) and was battered by USC in the Cotton Bowl.

Even under Leach, Tech has shown the tendency to let down on the road. Two seasons ago, the Red Raiders lost at 2-10 Colorado. Last season, they blew a lead in a 49-45 loss at Oklahoma State, which finished 7-6. In 2005, the Raiders started 6-0, but were blasted 52-17 in Austin by eventual national champion Texas, prompting Leach to criticize his players for being complacent and overconfident.

"You have to watch out for that," Leach said. "I think group mentality is most important. I'll keep a good lookout for it."

Fifth-year senior wide receiver Eric Morris said staying grounded is a priority.

"The past one or two years, we've had big victories, play great, then we turn around the next week and lose a game we shouldn't," he said. "One thing we're really working on is taking it one game at a time."

Still, with Tech's track and road record, it's hard to get too excited when potentially pivotal games are scheduled at Texas A&M, Kansas State, Kansas and Oklahoma. But this season could be different, for a surprising reason.

Quarterback Graham Harrell led the nation in passing last season, the entire offensive line returns intact, and sophomore Michael Crabtree emerged as the nation's premier receiver a year ago. Yet the foundation of much of the hope and optimism is because of the defense, which made significant improvement when Ruffin McNeill was elevated to the coordinator position after that loss to Oklahoma State last season.

"If Lyle Setencich was still the defensive coordinator, there would not be as much excitement," Giovannetti said. "They've been saying forever, 'If we could just get a top 30 or top 40 defense to go along with the offense ' "

In the past six seasons, Texas Tech has finished in the top 45 in total defense once, when it was 29th in 2005. Leach says McNeill's influence has made a big difference.

"Ruffin McNeill creates a lot of excitement," Leach said. "When he screams and yells, it makes me excited and creates energy for me, and I'm sure he does that for the players on defense."

The Red Raiders appear to have added some key players to the defense. Since 2002, Texas Tech has signed just three high school defenders who were four-star prospects. Two never made it to Lubbock. The third, end McKinner Dixon, was a freshman All-America, then spent his sophomore season at Cisco (Texas) Junior College. Dixon returned to Lubbock this year, along with defensive end Brandon Sesay, a four-star junior college prospect. In addition, defensive tackle Chris Perry has transferred from Miami and is expected to boost the line. That trio should enhance a unit that returns 10 starters, including tackle Rajon Henley and cornerback Jamar Wall, who are all-conference candidates.

"In seven-on-seven, we've been really excited over how well the defense is playing this year," Morris said. "It's by far the most talented team I've been around."

Of course, players typically speak highly of their teammates, but Leach vouched for Morris' appraisal of the defense. He recalled a scrimmage this spring that concluded with Leach giving the offense the ball at the 40 facing a mythical four-point deficit.

"After a couple of plays, Graham throws to Crabtree, who ran a not-bad route and Harrell threw a not-bad throw," Leach said. "Jamar Wall was right on Crabtree's hip and he goes up and picks it off.

"Defense wins."

Defense wins? That's rarely heard in Lubbock, even in the spring. Is change in the air?

"It looks like a perfect storm," Giovannetti said. "All these things are coming together. You can see the storm coming on. The fans think they see it coming. All the elements are right."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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