What is the value of experience? Because of all the things Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville may be lacking after two years in Lubbock -- positive momentum, defensive continuity, wins -- he's now got experience in his corner.
From a team that got blown out by an average of 39.3 points in its final three home games, he returns nine offensive starters and nine defensive starters (or, potentially, 10, depending on how and who you count). But it even goes beyond that. He returns his starting quarterback (which tends to mean a little more than other positions), three of his top four running backs (though two are at less than 100 percent after knee injuries in 2011), five of his top seven receivers, four offensive linemen with starting experience, six of his top eight defensive linemen (plus an interesting junior college transfer), four of his top five linebackers (plus an interesting junior college transfer), and seven of his top nine defensive backs (plus three interesting junior college transfers).
Winter research on the impact of returning starters shows that, on average, a typical number of returnees (something in the range of 10 to 17 returning starters) doesn't make that big a difference on your team's performance. But the extremes do. And Tech is on the positive extreme this year. Like a good ribeye, teams should expect to improve with simple seasoning, and the Red Raiders have it.
So the next question, then, is obvious: can they improve enough? Is experience, in this case, good to shore up some weaknesses, or can it serve as an all-out panacea for a program that looked more sickly last November than it has in a long, long time?
In his last three years in Lubbock (2007-09), Mike Leach fielded teams that ranked 27th, 13th and 20th in the F/+ rankings. They averaged a ranking of 7.3 in Off. F/+, and their defense improved from 85th, to 56th, to 37th in Def. F/+. Leach had not created an elite program in West Texas, but he had crafted a very good one, one that had averaged 8.5 wins per year in his tenure and had upped the ante to 9.7 per year from 2007-09. Since Leach's awkward dismissal, however, things have taken a drastic turn. The Red Raiders fell from 20th in F/+, to 60th, to 76th. The offense has ranked 48th in each year since Leach left, and the defense fell from 37th in 2009 to an abhorrent 106th last fall. Is simple experience enough to turn the tide?
Tuberville is quite obviously a proven coach, especially on the defensive side of the ball. As a defensive coordinator, his Miami defense allowed just 13.9 points per game in 1993 (11.5 before a disappointing bowl game). Then he inherited the Texas A&M defense for a year and allowed 13.4 (A&M went 10-0-1). He took over a flailing Ole Miss program for his first head coaching position and led them to seasons of 8-4 and 7-5 in his final two years, then he took over a 3-8 Auburn program and won nine games in his second year there. From 2004-07, his Tigers went 42-9; in 2004, they completed one of the most ill-timed undefeated seasons of all-time. Go undefeated in any other year, and maybe win a national title.
Tuberville is conservative and can occasionally become set in his ways; plus, he seems to have a way of sabotaging himself by adopting ideas to which he isn't fully married (see: his 2008 Auburn spread offense and his 2011 Texas Tech 4-2-5 defense). But through his career, he had the habit of either improving programs or maintaining a happy status quo. And then he came to Lubbock.
Good coaches don't suddenly become dumb, but Tuberville's tenure at Tech has clearly left something to be desired. And if he is capable of a turnaround, he has no choice but to do it in 2012. The offense is senior-laden, and the defense is at least more experienced than it was last year (and hey, he's moving back to the defensive alignment for which any fourth- and fifth-year defenders were recruited to play!). Recruiting has been solid enough (Tech ranks 20th in two-year recruiting average), but if Tuberville wants to be around long enough to reap the rewards of solid recruiting, he'll need to figure out how to win games. Tech had finished .500 or better for 18 straight years before last year's 5-7 campaign. Tech fans don't demand national titles, but they demand more than Tuberville has provided to date.
As with a lot of teams I've been previewing lately, I think Tech might be a year away from being a truly stellar football team, but while they will potentially suffer through a lot more ups and downs in 2011 ... the 'ups' should be rather impressive. They will probably knock off somebody like a Texas A&M or Oklahoma State (they get both at home) while losing to somebody relatively unimpressive. (Then again, getting Iowa State, Kansas State and Nevada at home might preclude some of the drop-offs ... don't forget that Tech has potentially the best homefield advantage in the country.) Because of home field and a reasonably friendly schedule (as friendly as a schedule can be with the phrases "at Oklahoma" and "at Texas" involved), Tech shouldn't have much problem reaching bowl eligibility and a 17th consecutive non-losing season, but any aspirations beyond that will probably be put on hold for another year.
Tommy Tuberville inherited a difficult situation, replacing an extremely popular coach who had won at a rather high level for Tech. With his recent recruiting success, he could begin to put some pressure on both the conference's known powers (Oklahoma, Texas) and assumed powers (A&M). In the meantime, however, 2011 will probably be another year of establishing an identity and simply surviving.
"They will probably knock off somebody like a Texas A&M or Oklahoma State…" Or Oklahoma in Norman.
"…while losing to somebody relatively unimpressive." Like Iowa State, at home, by 34.
Really, the major story for Texas Tech in 2011 might not have been its further defensive collapse (though that was certainly part of the narrative) -- it was the collapse of a strong home-field advantage. Historically, Tech has had one of the larger home-road splits of any team in college football. But last fall, it reversed. Tech ended Oklahoma's decade-long conference home winning streak with a stunning 41-38 win on a stormy Saturday night in October. The Red Raiders also killed New Mexico by 46 points (yes, it was New Mexico, but still), won at Kansas (yes, but still) and held a lead until very late in the game on their trip to Missouri. But their home performances were egregious: they fell behind, 38-23, to Texas A&M but, unlike almost everybody else against A&M, didn't come back to win. And after the inspiring win over Oklahoma, they got destroyed by Iowa State, then lost 66-6 to Oklahoma State. In their last three homes games of the season, the Red Raiders were outscored, 173-55. That is an absurd average of Opponent 58, Tech 18.
Injuries didn't help, of course. Perhaps Tech's two best running backs, Eric Stephens and DeAndre Washington, succumbed to knee injuries during the season, as did possession receiver extraordinaire Alex Torres. And between injuries and a dreadful lack of defensive experience, the Red Raiders faded from mediocre to poor over the last half of the season.
First Seven Games: Tech 30.7 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 30.1 (plus-0.6)
Last Five Games: Opponents 30.9 Adj. Points per game, Tech 27.2 (minus-3.7)
After the win over Oklahoma, Tech stood at 5-2 and had bolted to 19th in the AP Poll. It looked like new defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow had begun to figure things out, and the Tuberville program was close to taking off. And then Tech lost five games in a row and missed a bowl for the first time since 1999 and just the third time since 1993.
As I always say, injuries hurt in the present tense and help in the future tense. And because of last year's injuries, this year's offense is loaded with experience. But the defense still has enormous questions to answer, as does Tuberville himself.
It is, but it isn't. On paper, offensive coordinator Neal Brown's offensive system is similar to that of Mike Leach -- spread 'em out and throw a ton -- but in practice, the two pass-first offenses are mutually exclusive. Really, though, the oddest thing about Brown is that Tuberville hired him at all. Before coming to Lubbock, Brown took the offensive coordinator job at Troy after Tuberville hired Brown's mentor, then-Troy coordinator Tony Franklin, to Auburn. Franklin was never truly given a chance to succeed at Auburn, either by Tuberville, other assistants, or Auburn higher-ups, and he was replaced midway through his first season. When Tuberville took the Tech job a year and a half later, he took another Troy coordinator.
Like Leach's system, Brown's offense is based on efficiency first. Quarterback Seth Doege completed 69 percent of his passes last year, and Tech ranked 16th in Passing Success Rate+ (an efficiency rating). The quick passing ensures a low sack rate (Doege was sacked just 3.2 percent of the time in 2011, which isn't quite as low as Leach offenses but is still quite low), but it also tends to produce low per-catch averages. Leading receiver Eric Ward last season, for instance, caught 84 passes but gained just 800 yards (9.5 per catch, 7.1 per target) in the process. Of the nine Tech receivers targeted by at least 25 passes in 2011 (yeah, they still pass a lot), only two averaged better than 11.3 yards per catch, none better than 12.1. Efficiency is a very good thing, and Tech has it -- only one of the top seven targets had a catch rate worse than 71 percent -- but a little explosiveness goes a long way. If you tackle well, you can eventually start to slow Tech down and/or force a mistake.
The Tech offense is incredibly experienced this fall, but at first glance any big-play potential is going to have to come from a newcomer to the rotation. Doege returns for his senior season after throwing for 4,004 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions a year ago. His top three targets all return -- Ward, Darrin Moore (571 yards, 8.2 per target, 67 percent catch rate), Alex Torres (616 yards, 9.1 per target, 75 percent catch rate; injured his knee late in 2011) -- as do five other players who caught at least 10 passes. Plus, youngsters like sophomore Jace Amaro (a highly touted tight end recruit who has some potential legal troubles hanging over his head), redshirt freshman Derek Edwards and freshmen Reginald Davis and Dominique Wheeler were all four-star recruits once upon a time. Getting both Moore and Torres back healthy would be great; not only did Torres tear his knee up, but Moore suffered through ankle and knee issues for a good portion of the season. In the first two games of 2011, he caught 21 passes for 339 yards (16.1 per catch), but missed three games and averaged just 8.9 yards per catch upon his return.
Again, efficiency is a good thing, and Tech will once again have one of the more efficient passing games in the country; but easy scores are the lifeblood of a successful football team, and Tech didn't generate enough of them in 2011. Good health would help, but as we'll see with the running backs, that really wasn't in the cards last fall.
One-dimensional offenses can be slowed down, and while Tech is going to pass a ton no matter what, they probably would have run at least a bit more had they been able to keep running backs on the field. Jitterbug Eric Stephens was lost for the season in just the fifth game of the year after already compiling 109 carries and a combined 703 rushing and receiving yards. He had rushed for at least 92 yards in each game, and his combined 164 yards and two touchdowns versus Nevada were key in a one-point win. Then-freshman DeAndre Washington followed suit with a knee injury of his own late in the year. What was supposed to be a deep, interesting set of backs turned into a M*A*S*H unit. The staff is hopeful that both players will be completely healthy at some point during the season. Stephens seems to be coming along relatively well, but we'll see. Stephens in particular gave this offense a second dimension, and against teams not named Oklahoma, his presence was missed down the stretch. If he does return to full-strength, he should at least have a pretty good line in front of him. Of the seven players who had compiled starting experience after last fall, four return, including two two-year starters: second-team all-conference tackle LaAdrian Waddle and center Deveric Gallington. There will be youth in the line rotation in 2012, but it was at least highly-touted youth -- redshirt freshman center Tony Morales was a four-star signee, while guard Alfredo Morales and Le'Raven Clark were nearly four-stars themselves.
When defensive coordinator James Willis resigned unexpectedly after the 2010 season (which may or may not have had to do with reasons outside of football), Tuberville took the opportunity to shake up a defense that had only somewhat adapted to Willis' 3-4 style. With the 4-2-5 working wonders at TCU, Tuberville plucked a key Gary Patterson assistant, Chad Glasgow, to build the same type of defensive success in Lubbock. With time, who knows, it may have worked. But it very much did not in 2011. Tech was a sieve on third down and couldn't stop opponents from running constantly, and Tech defenders weren't nearly good enough at tackling in space (86 percent of last year's tackles were solo tackles) to run the 4-2-5 successfully, especially considering injuries and youth at the linebacker position. (As bad as the results were for the Tech defense, it could have been worse -- they actually led the country in forced fumbles last year.)
Facing at least a bit of a hot seat, Tuberville decided to move back toward the alignment he knows best: the good old 4-3. Of course, that means that in the last three calendar years, Tech has moved from a 4-3, to a 3-4, to a 4-2-5, back to a 4-3. Fourth- and fifth-year Red Raiders are on their fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons, and younger defenders could have been recruited to Lubbock to play any number of now-obsolete positions.
Regardless, with more experience and more heft (tackles Kerry Hyder and Delvon Simmons added a combined 46 pounds this offseason), Tech should improve defensively in 2012 under Art Kaufman, their fourth coordinator in as many seasons and a former coordinator at both Ole Miss and North Carolina. "Improved" doesn't necessarily mean "good," but you have to start somewhere.
To get an idea for how young the Tech defense was last fall, look at how many of this year's top returnees are sophomores and juniors: five of the top six tacklers returning on the line, the top four returning linebackers, and three of the top five returning defensive backs. Blake Dees and Sam Eguavoen (combined: 57.5 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles) combined to start 10 games last year as true freshmen, which typically isn't a good thing. But the linebacking corps got a boost in a couple of different ways this offseason; first, playmaking safety Terrance Bullitt (9.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up) put on 15 pounds and moved to strongside linebacker. Then, junior college transfer Will Smith enrolled early and had a fantastic spring. Suddenly, this unit is half-loaded, with Bullitt, Smith, Dees and Eguavoen joining junior Daniel Cobb (7.5 tackles for loss).
Improvement in the middle should help a lot; improvement up front would help even more. The Tech line got pushed around far too much last year, gaining no traction against the run (82nd in Adj. Line Yards) and developing no consistent pressure on the quarterback without blitzing (90th in Adj. Sack Rate). Sacks leader (with just 5.5) Scott Smith is gone, but there is reason to think the line will improve anyway. First of all, last year's freshmen and sophomores are now sophomores and juniors. Ends Dartwan Bush (5.0 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles; now a junior) and Jackson Richards (2.5 tackles for loss as a four-star freshman) still have time to develop into threats, as do redshirt freshmen Kindred Evans and Branden Jackson. Meanwhile, at tackle, Hyder (5.0 tackles for loss, three passes broken up) is quick, junior Dennell Wesley is in shape (he actually dropped about 30 pounds to 286), Simmons is a four-star sophomore who looked good late in 2011, and big freshman Michael Starts was a nice blue-chip signee this past February. We're still dealing mostly with potential instead of production here, but it's something.
Considering the lack of pass rush, the Tech secondary wasn't awful last year. Senior safeties Cody Davis and D.J. Johnson (combined: 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, eight passes broken up, four forced fumbles, and 21 percent of all of Tech's tackles last year) lead the way, while four junior college transfers provide a bit of an infusion to the lineup.
When you just saw a long bowl streak end, and your conference is loaded with six ranked teams in the preseason (and you are not one of those six), expectations will probably keep themselves in check no matter how much experience your roster currently holds. For Tuberville to feel safe about his long-term prognosis in Lubbock, however, he better figure out a way to make a bowl game. Home games against Northwestern State, New Mexico and Kansas, plus an incredibly winnable trip to Texas State, should get Tech two-thirds of the way toward bowl eligibility. But to get those extra two wins, they might need to find their misplaced home-field advantage.
Whoever replaced Mike Leach was going to inherit an awkward situation in Lubbock. Leach had brought sustained quality to Texas Tech, and his unique personality and style of play had endeared themselves to Tech fans. Tuberville was a strong hire, all things considered, but his 13-12 record has simply not been up to par thus far. A combination of strong recruiting, solid experience and healthy knees tells us that Tech can expect to improve quite a bit in 2012, but in a loaded Big 12 the Red Raiders could still fade into the woodwork if they aren't careful.
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