The Red Raiders head into 2018 with more questions than answers. While defense has been a thorn in the side of Texas Tech, their perceived weakness is oddly on the offensive side of the ball this season.
Typically, easing into the season against a lesser opponent is the right recipe to help gather your bearings. This is especially true when so much of your experienced roster has departed, and you’re trying to plug holes with less experienced players. However, The Raiders get no such luxury as they head to Houston for a neutral-field contest against the SEC’s Ole Miss Rebels to kick off the season. For embattled coach Kliff Kingsbury, the answers to all of Red Raider’s looming questions need to be answered in a hurry.
Mississippi finished 6-6 last season in coach Matt Luke’s first year at the helm. The Rebels are looking to build upon that in his second year. Luke will have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball to work with, too. This includes an offense led by Offensive Coordinator Phil Longo, which can put points on the board quickly.
Defensively, Wesley McGriff’s squad looks to build upon their 115th place ranking in 2017.
Returning quarterback Jordan Ta’amu passed for over 1,600 yards with 11 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 66.5 percent last season. Ta’amu will be passing to what many pundits believe to be the best receiving corps in the nation. They’re led by standout receiver A.J. Brown who happens to be ranked as the best receiver available on Mel Kiper, Jr.’s draft board for 2019. The Rebels finished ranked 11th in passing offense last season and could dramatically improve upon that ranking this season.
For Ole Miss, defense is their overall primary challenge. The Rebels struggled mightily to stop the run a season ago. While their overall ranking last year was unimpressive, the defensive line was a strength against the pass. This unit helped the Rebels to a top-30 ranking in defensive havoc rate. The Rebels can definitely get after the quarterback.
Kingsbury’s seat is getting pretty warm, and getting a big win over an SEC opponent would go a long way to cooling it off. That’s going to be easier said than done, though. With so many questions on offense, the Raiders are going to have to rely on defense a little more than those in Lubbock are going to feel comfortable with.
The good news is that the defense made massive strides last season; improving their overall rank by roughly 40 spots. It still ranked in the 80s, so there is obviously more work to be done, but defensive coordinator David Gibbs will have plenty of returning talent to work with. Nose tackle Broderick Washington, Linebackers Dakota Allen and Jordyn Brooks, and safety Jah’Shawn Johnson, along with six other returning starters, give Tech proven production at every level. The biggest concern for this unit is just overall depth beyond the first string.
The other concern is that under Gibbs, the defense has largely focused on producing turnovers in order to get the offense more possessions. If the offense can’t capitalize on those extra possessions, then Tech is going to have to play defense the old-fashioned way and get stops.
For the first time in a long time, there’s uncertainty around the Red Raider offense. They will be breaking in a couple of new signal-callers in an inexperienced combo of quarterbacks McLane Carter and Jett Duffy. Just how much will Kingsbury be able to open up the playbook? We will have to wait and find out. Regardless, it would be foolish to believe there won’t be growing pains at the position.
The Red Raiders also lost their top running back in Justin Stockton as well as several key pieces of their receiving corps from a season ago.
One thing you can never count out though, is a Kingsbury offense. So the question Tech needs to answer, and answer in a hurry, is if they can bring all the pieces together into a winning football team.
Keys To The Game
1. Efficient Quarterback Play – The most pressing concern for Kingsbury’s Raiders will be the coolness of the ship’s captain. It’s imperative that whomever is at the helm not press and instead focuses on making the safe and efficient play when at all possible. There’s no need to force things against what will still be a mediocre defense trying to find their footing.
2. Establish The Run – This could be said for every game as it is Football 101, but a brand new quarterback’s best friend is a solid running game. While the Raiders will be trotting out a new running back as well, a well planned, balanced attack will go miles to calm the nerves of the starting QB, and will keep the defense honest.
3. Stop The Surge – The Rebels offense has many of the necessary components to be explosive once again. An improved Red Raiders defense must be prepared for the Rebels to take big shots down the field. Limiting big plays by the vaunted Rebels receiving corps is a must. A Tech defense which amassed only 18 sacks last season must find a way to come up big. This will be a tall task against an offensive line with 103 combined starts.
Tech is usually a program that can plug and play at many of its offensive positions. While that may still be the case, the degree to which they have to replace offensive talent would be a heavy burden for any program. And though the Red Raiders offense won’t be facing a stalwart defense, it will be facing one with plenty of talent and hunger to prove itself.
This all amounts to what seems to be quite the challenge for Kingsbury’s young Raiders. In a game that many consider to be a possible shootout, only one team seems to have the experienced firepower to live up to the billing. Tech is currently a slight favorite, and while Tech’s improving defense will make a valiant effort for a good part of this matchup, I have a feeling the Rebels will pull away late to win by single digits.