Commentary

Red Raiders' offense should give OU defense fits

Originally Published: November 20, 2008
By Chris Fowler | ESPN.com

I have to love Mike Leach.

I admire him despite all his quirks and eccentricities. Maybe because of them.

[+] EnlargeMike Leach
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelA win at Oklahoma will clinch the Big 12 South for Mike Leach's Red Raiders.

All that stuff is fun -- from the obsession with pirates (not the kind that recently captured an oil tanker) to the long-distance relationship with The Donald.

He's a true original. We don't have enough of those left in college football.

Saturday's game versus Oklahoma (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) is huge. Only the Red Raiders can wrap up the Big 12 South with a win. Oklahoma has another very tricky test next week versus Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Whoever wins this week, it'll be a battle worthy of the "Bedlam" label.

But Texas Tech can secure a spot against nemesis Missouri in the conference title game even before its finale with Baylor.

How will Leach's undefeated, No. 2 Red Raiders fine-tune their preparation for the monumental showdown at Oklahoma? I am told they are gathering Friday at their hotel near the Oklahoma City airport for the final walk-through.

They probably will do the usual: quickly go through substitution units and some formational stuff … in the parking lot! Very informal and very Mike Leach.

But make no mistake, the guy is not a pushover. Leach's Tuesday and Wednesday practices are high-tempo and tough. He does not tolerate a lack of effort or focus, and guys who are caught goofing off a bit do pay the price.

Texas Tech has a real chance Saturday night, even though most of the public seems to believe OU will win convincingly -- judging by its growing status as a touchdown-plus favorite.

"College GameDay"
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Set your alarm clock Saturday. Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and the rest of the "College GameDay" crew will be in Norman, Okla., for Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Tune in to find out about all the Week 13 action and everything else in college football.
When: Saturday, 10 a.m. ET
TV: ESPN Where: Norman, Okla.

I know that in four previous games at his former stomping grounds in Norman, Leach's offense has averaged just 16.3 points and a fairly measly 318 yards. In his career at Tech, Leach's offenses average almost 500 yards per game when not facing the Sooners.

But how good is the Sooners' defense of '08? Not up to standard, I'm afraid. Plus, this Texas Tech offense is better in several ways than previous groups. Graham Harrell is playing at a higher level than those before him, and his protection is the best any Tech QB has ever had. It is almost amazing to watch how relaxed Harrell stands in the pocket: upright, stationary, with calm feet and eyes scanning downfield.

If OU (minus injured top pass-rusher Austin English) cannot find a way to navigate around the wide splits of the O-line and unsettle Harrell, the defense will be at his mercy. And if that's the case, Oklahoma will just have to hope he has one of those rare nights when the accuracy is not quite dialed in.

Tech's tandem of Baron Batch and Shannon Woods is also plenty productive enough to keep defenses honest. Between them, the tailbacks have combined for 1,255 yards (126 per game) and 16 rushing TDs. That is more than respectable for the tailback position, much less for a back in a spread that yields a national-best 434 passing yards per game.

Oklahoma has to contend with those guys without jamming safeties up near the line. If you remove red zone runs from the equation, Woods is gaining a whopping 8.1 per carry. When the season is done, Tech will have doubled its rushing yardage from last season. Batch finally has recovered from a very serious Achilles injury that cost him part of 2006 and all of last season.

Harrell also has an underrated posse of pass-catchers who live in the enormous shadow of Michael Crabtree. Eric "The Elf" Morris, at 5-foot-6, has become a cult hero as a pesky H-back, but Detron Lewis really impresses me. If -- and when -- Mr. Crabtree pursues the NFL next year, Lewis will step in as "the man." He is gifted. Why he doesn't have more than just a single TD among his 57 catches is a bit of a puzzle, but he's good.

Edward Britton is the guy who was so troublesome to Texas, and lanky Tramain Swindall is a talented backup for Lewis at the "Y" receiver.

It's a deep group. Put these guys around tough, dominating Crabtree, and they all become better. The fact that Crabtree can power through an injury on top of his foot that causes him frequent pain is a testament to his toughness. He is not just playing hurt in games, either. No. 5 is out there powering through practices and making a strong statement to his teammates every day.

I just hope that if Crabtree and Harrell have big games and solidify their status as top Heisman contenders, Leach will allow them to come to New York in a few weeks. There are lots of cameras and microphones and distractions in the big city.

And the ceremony is not on a Monday. And it cannot be moved to Lubbock.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Icon SMIExpect Sam Bradford and the OU offense to put up points, but will it be good enough to win?

A hunch says this Texas Tech team won't get spooked by the Sooner Schooner and all the trappings of Norman as others have in the past. This group has a very strong self-belief and is thriving on shutting up the skeptics. Now, the Red Raiders have little chance to slow down Sam Bradford and the many weapons he wields. But outscoring the Sooners is a distinct possibility. So I'm leaning a little to the 'dogs here and away from the team I thought would play in the BCS title game. Wait, what am I doing? Am I pulling a Corso, who picked one team (LSU) to win the title in the preseason, then went against it in a big game?

Speaking of the Sunshine Scooter, he is in the process of salvaging his "Headgear" season, correctly picking the past three "GameDay" host games after sitting at just 4-5 after Penn State's win at Ohio State. At 7-5, he is not BCS-bound, but he is just one win from securing a winning season (in our 15-week schedule).

Rough ride for Big Ten?

Northwestern (8-3) is easily one of the season's most pleasant surprises. The purple are powering toward an improbable nine-win season in Pat Fitzgerald's third year.

I didn't see that coming. Well-traveled veteran Mike Hankwitz has been superb as the defensive coordinator, which is not a surprise. But to get Northwestern's defense to improve so much (allowing 20.2 ppg, 11 points fewer than last year's scoring average) is a huge deal. From sacks to pass defense to vastly improved rush defense, the Cats are playing their best defense since the days when Fitzgerald played linebacker for the squad.

It is unlikely that Northwestern will have a single first-team all-Big Ten representative. There is improved depth in Evanston, but for a club to win eight or nine without a single all-conference star is very rare.

To do it without stud tailback Tyrell Sutton down the stretch is even more impressive. The Cats are also 4-1 on the road. The only blemish was a strange loss to Indiana on Oct. 25.

Northwestern is a home underdog to Illinois, but only once since 1993 has the team with the better record heading into this rivalry game lost the contest.

I did not expect Illinois to take such a humbling step back in '08. If Ron Zook's guys lose the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk to the Cats, Illinois would be the first Big Ten team to go from the Rose Bowl to a losing record the next year. There is no doubt it's deflating for the Zooker's efforts to make Illinois an annual force nationally.

Not, however, as deflating as what has gone on at Michigan. I still have a lot of respect for Rich Rodriguez. But there is absolutely no way to spin the Wolverines' 2008 season. Rich tries to do so, as he must, in a conversation that will air Saturday on "GameDay." He is doing some serious spinning, folks.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
James Lang/US PRESSWIRENot many things have gone right in Rich Rodriguez's first season at Michigan.

When, under your watch, it is revealed to a stunned fan base that it is, in fact, possible for Michigan to lose nine games in a season, it will never be erased from your legacy. Or, at the very least, it is not easily erased. It would take a bunch of wins and a few conference titles, and still people would look back and say, "Yeah, but Rodriguez did go 3-9 back in '08." They don't forget historic meltdowns in a hurry.

Last season, it was Notre Dame joining the nine-loss club. Entering this season, only three programs had never, ever lost even eight in a season: Michigan, Ohio State and Tennessee.

The Wolverines already have fallen from that list. Tennessee is sitting at 3-7 with two games to play. Unless the not-so-Big Orange defeat Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Ohio State will stand alone as college football's only major program never to have suffered an eight-loss campaign.

By the way, did you notice that the Vols are actually a field goal underdog to Vandy this weekend? It's been awhile since the Dores have been expected to beat their perennial bullies from Knoxville.

Back to the Big Ten, which may be receiving some very public floggings for the holidays from Santa. Again.

A check of the potential bowl pairings reveals that Big Ten teams are likely to be underdogs in almost all of them. Penn State or Ohio State would be in for tough sledding against USC in Pasadena, but obviously would be expected to handle Oregon State (although nowhere near as easily as the Lions did at home in September).

A second Big Ten team should get a BCS at-large bid (assuming the Buckeyes don't stumble Saturday) and likely would face a high-powered Big 12 team in Tempe.

How tasty would a Michigan State vs. SEC (maybe Georgia) be in the Capital One Bowl? How about Northwestern in the Outback against another SEC team (LSU or South Carolina)?

Then it'd be back to banging heads with the Big 12 in the Alamo and Insight bowls. How do you like Iowa vs. Oklahoma State or Missouri? Wisconsin vs. Nebraska or somebody else? Minnesota and one of the ACC mishmash (there's no way anyone can make a prediction in that conference) could be headed for a Champs Sports collision.

The Motor City matchup with the MAC is no gimme, either, given that Central Michigan (Indiana), Western Michigan (Illinois), Ball State (Indiana) and Toledo (Michigan) have claimed Big Ten victims this season.

Quick aside: I like the story of Ball State's dream season, prolonged by the rally in chilly Mount Pleasant on Wednesday night to nip the Chippewas. But are the Cards really among the 17 strongest teams in the country, as the BCS standings suggest? Come on. I am voting them No. 25, and that may be generous.

Bottom line, it likely will be real ugly for the Big Ten again this year when the bowl scorecard is tallied. The ol' Bowl Challenge Cup presented to the conference with the best bowl winning percentage is not headed for the Big Ten trophy case.

Summoning the Swami

The ACC isn't the only conference with a crazy race this year. You probably have not spent much time pondering the convoluted scenarios in Chris Berman's beloved Ivy League. But it is possible that four teams could share the crown at 5-2.

It could happen if Yale wins at Harvard (the Elis actually have a winning record there, and it is the 40th anniversary of the infamous 29-29 tie) … and Brown is upset by Columbia (which is coming off a win and has been very competitive) … and Penn loses at Cornell, which is not far-fetched at all.

If all that stuff happens, the Ivy will have its first four-way tie in 53 seasons of football. For all of you who root for chaos in college football, there is a little subplot this weekend.

Rattlers Rolling

Florida A&M's Joe Taylor is a very gifted molder and motivator. I enjoyed visiting with him during the "GameDay" stop at the school's Tallahassee campus this past weekend. He is smooth and silver-tongued, but Taylor can coach, too.

Taylor's Hampton team destroyed FAMU 59-7 in 2006, then came back to thump the proud program again last year. The success then switched sides as FAMU turned around and put 45 on the board to beat Hampton in Taylor's first year with the Rattlers. That proves something to me. Taylor's rebuilding job at FAMU is only in Year 1 and has a ways to go. But it is clear to me that he will revive the tradition at one of the most accomplished historically black colleges in the nation.

That's it for this week. Wasn't so bad, was it? The most frequent complaint I get about this column, even from those who claim to enjoy it, is that it is too damn long. Fair point. This is not "Vanity Fair."

So I will shut up now.

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay." Kick off each Saturday with "College GameDay" at 10 a.m. ET to get the latest news on college football.

Chris Fowler

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.