November 30, 2008

Texas Tech's 2008 season has been special

No matter how you slice it, 2008 has been a very special year for Texas Tech football. For the first time in school history, the Red Raiders have won 11 games during the regular season (Tech won 11 games in 1953 and 1973, both times requiring a bowl win to reach that number), and could be the first Tech squad to win 12 games.

Many observers foresaw a special season, but nobody realized just how tough the Big 12 South division would be. Achieving what the Red Raiders have accomplished given the surprising quality of Texas, Oklahoma State, and even Baylor in 2008 makes the team's 11-1 record all the more impressive.

And how quickly this most superlative of seasons has flown by!

Does it not seem like yesterday that Eric Morris scooted 80-plus yards on a punt return to give the Red Raiders an early lead against the Nevada Wolf Pack in the weird environs of Reno? Does it not seem like just last week that the Red Raider defense struggled mightily against Colin Kaepernick and what turned out to be the nation's best rushing offense, only to rise up when it counted and seal the victory? That turned out to be a pretty good win for the Red Raiders.

But few people realized it at the time.

And after three weeks the Red Raiders stood at 3-0 with wins over Eastern Washington (49-24), Nevada (35-19) and SMU (43-7). Despite the spotless record, however, there was unrest among the Red Raider natives. If Tech was truly good enough to challenge for the Big 12 crown, they wouldn't be beating Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos by 25, 16 and 36; they would be grinding them into fine powder and fertilizing the landscape with them.

For those with eyes to see, the Red Raiders turned the corner in the first half of week four against Massachusetts. The Minutemen were comparable to Eastern Washington and SMU, but Tech came out of the tunnel ablaze and put UMass in a 42-7 hole.

No team in America played a better half of football than the Red Raiders, but again, few people noticed. The first three games of the season had set the stamp that Tech was overrated. It was a label the Red Raiders would struggle to invalidate for much of the remainder of the season.

Tech took a powerful first step toward doing just that in the conference opener against Kansas State in Manhattan. The Wildcats in an upset of the Red Raiders was a sexy pick leading up to that contest, but Jessica Simpson turned into Rosie O'Donnell on the experts as Tech waxed KSU 58-28. Tech scored 38 points in the first half of that one.

The experts also went awry the following week, but in the opposite direction. Most people believed the Red Raiders would take Nebraska apart in Lubbock on the strength of Tech's impressive win the week before and Missouri's demolition of the Huskers that same week.

Instead, the Red Raiders scraped and clawed their way to a 37-31 victory in overtime, that was only sealed when Jamar Wall intercepted Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz. The Red Raiders had missed the extra point following their overtime touchdown leaving Tech completely vulnerable to a terrible loss. But, as they did so often in 2008, the Red Raiders made the critical play when they had to, and showed the character of a champion.

Matters were almost as dicey the following week as Tech traveled to the friendly confines of Kyle Field to take on the Texas A&M Aggies. A&M, much like Nebraska, played their best game of the year against the Red Raiders and led 23-20 at halftime. But, as was recurrently the case in 2008, the Red Raiders followed the lead of the defense and emerged with a 43-25 victory. Tech held the Aggies to two points in the second half.

Then came the meat of Tech's schedule, consecutive clashes with Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma. All of those teams were nationally ranked, two of them were legitimate national championship threats, and two of the games were on the road. Some pundits figured the Red Raiders would be lucky to win a game, and most best-case scenarios projected a split.

Tech threw all the conventional wisdom into serious doubt by taking to the road and bludgeoning the Kansas Jayhawks 63-21. They followed up that masterpiece by nipping the No. 1 ranked Texas Longhorns 39-33 in what will go down as one of the greatest games in college football history.

After such an emotional catharsis, the Red Raiders would have nothing left in the tank for the ultra-physical and top ten-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys. No less an authority than Ron Franklin said as much. Tech was going to take a spankin'.

And a spanking was duly received in Jones AT&T Stadium that Saturday afternoon, but it was not Red Raider backsides that were bruised. Quite the opposite. Tech kicked the stuffing out of the Cowboys by a 56-20 count to move to 10-0 and the No. 2 position in the BCS rankings.

Suddenly, the Red Raiders were within shouting distance not only of a Big 12 championship, but of a spot in the national title game as well. All that really stood between them and the unthinkable was a date with the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman.

The pundits who had been picking against Tech the entire season finally got one right. In a game that still largely defies rational explanation, the Red Raiders went down in flames 65-21. And so Tech's national championship aspirations were largely vaporized, if not entirely their Big 12 title hopes.

To win the Big 12 championship, the Red Raiders would need to defeat Baylor, have Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma, and then Tech would have to knock off Missouri in the Big 12 title game.

The Red Raiders took care of their end of the bargain-just barely-with a high-moxie win over the Bears. But alas, Oklahoma State could not spring the upset over the Sooners, although they did put forth a valiant effort.

Now the Red Raiders stand with a marvelous 11-1 record against extraordinarily stiff competition, a share of the Big 12 South title, a No. 7 national ranking, and a likely clash with the Ole Miss Rebels in the Cotton Bowl.

A trip to the Cotton Bowl is not chopped liver, and Houston Nutt's Rebs are a very worthy opponent. But this is a team that assuredly deserves a BCS Bowl berth. Indeed, if berths were awarded to the best teams rather than apportioned to conference champions and outliers from also-ran leagues, Tech would certainly get its day in the BCS sun. But because the BCS is a system that prizes "fairness" above justice, the Red Raiders will not receive their just reward. Texas Tech's body of work is among the nation's very best; the governing body that oversees college football's postseason is not.

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