Texas Tech is in the midst of the best run in school history. But the coach responsible lost his job in an ugly manner in December.
Mike Leach was let go amid allegations that he mistreated wide receiver Adam James, who remains on the team. Bad feelings still surround the program, but new coach Tommy Tuberville is a proven winner who has helped settle things down.
In some respects, Tuberville is the exact opposite of Leach. Tuberville generally has won with a pounding ground game and a stifling defense, but he has said he will continue the Leach modus operandi of throwing the ball around. That promises to be one of the most interesting story lines of this season.
Here's a closer look at the Red Raiders.
THE SCHEME: Under former coach Mike Leach, the Red Raiders operated a pass-oriented spread offense that routinely posted huge numbers and featured wider-than-normal splits in the line. But in previous stops at Ole Miss and Auburn, new Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville has relied on a power running game. Still, Tuberville has vowed to continue running the spread. With that in mind, he brought in coordinator Neal Brown from Troy, which has had recent success in the spread. But look for narrower splits by the linemen and a bigger emphasis on the run.
STAR POWER: About a decade has passed since a running back could be listed here for Texas Tech, but Baron Batch certainly qualifies. Even with talented receivers and quarterbacks, Batch has distinguished himself. Last season, he rushed for a team-high 884 yards and also led Tech in all-purpose yards and scoring by a non-kicker. He caught 57 passes, too. His opportunities figure to increase.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Even though the top five receivers from '09 are back, there is a measure of excitement about the potential of redshirt freshman WR Eric Ward. A four-star prospect in '09, he has 4.4 speed and is elusive in the open field, a trait the Red Raiders are hoping to see him demonstrate often this season.
STRONGEST AREA: Yeah, Tech has capable quarterbacks in Stephen Sheffield and Taylor. The Red Raiders also have five receivers who made at 35 catches returning from last season. But the strongest area is at running back, where the Red Raiders are loaded. Batch has rushed for more than 1,600 yards in the past two seasons while averaging better than 5.8 yards per attempt. Sophomore Eric Stephens is solid backup, and sophomore Harrison Jeffers may be the greatest big-play threat of them all. The Red Raiders also have powerful junior Aaron Crawford, who Tuberville says is an "SEC-type" back. Could Crawford get higher praise from a former Auburn coach?
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Only one fulltime starter is back along the line, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing. A year ago, the Red Raiders averaged only 84.0 rushing yards to rank 115th in the nation. The low rushing output could easily be explained as the predictable result of a pass-oriented offense. But the Red Raiders also allowed 31 sacks, which ranked ninth in the Big 12 and 87th in the country. The tackle spots, especially, bear watching.
THE SCHEME: For years, Tech ran a 4-3 set as its base defense. That's changing. Under Tuberville, who brought in James Willis from Alabama as coordinator, the Red Raiders will switch to a 3-4. They will be a threat to blitz on every play from various positions.
STAR POWER: Brian Duncan led Tech in tackles in each of the past two seasons from his middle linebacker position. Now, with a need to bolster the pass rush, he's shifted to an end/linebacker hybrid in hopes he can provide pressure off the edge.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The nation's fourth-ranked junior college prospect, Scott Smith should fill a big need at end. Tech needs to strengthen its pass rush, and the 6-foot-7, 275-pound Smith will help. He had 14 sacks last season at Butler County (Kan.) Community College.
STRONGEST AREA: Despite facing some of the nation's most productive quarterbacks (Houston's Case Keenum, Texas' Colt McCoy, A&M's Jerrod Johnson) last season, the Red Raiders surrendered just 12 touchdown passes. They figure to be just as difficult to pass on this year with three starters returning in the secondary. Cody Davis and Franklin Mitchem form a solid pair at safety. LaRon Moore is a returning starter at cornerback, while D.J. Johnson and Will Ford have played frequently in nickel packages.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line is a point of concern. Senior NT Colby Whitlock is the only starter returning from last year's front; last season's group featured Brandon Sharp and Daniel Howard, who combined for 23 sacks. Whitlock had three - and that's the most among the returning Red Raiders.
Stephens made a significant impact in his debut season by averaging more than 25 yards on kickoff returns and setting a school record with 823 kick-return yards. Obviously, that area is in good shape. So is the punt return team with Austin Zouzalik, who averaged nearly 10 yards per return in '09. There is a little more concern with the kicking chores. Matt Williams, who was added to the team in '08 after winning a halftime kicking contest as a fan, is accurate inside 40 yards, but erratic from beyond. Sophomore P Ryan Erxleben, the son of a former All-America kicker at Texas, had a solid first season with a 40.8-yard average. Tuberville is personally overseeing the kicking game and has hinted he'll take chances. Look out for onside kicks, faked field goals and blocked punts. The coverage teams were good last season.
For a team with a new coach, a fast start is vital in building confidence. The schedule is set up nicely for Tech to get on an early roll. Four of the first five games are against SMU, New Mexico, Iowa State and Baylor - which combined to go 20-30 last season. But three tough road games loom in the second half of the season. The Red Raiders must go to Colorado, where they've often had problems; Texas A&M, which beat them in Lubbock last season; and Oklahoma, where they haven't won since 1996. The season closes with a home game against Houston, which upset Tech a year ago.
The controversial divorce from Leach is in the rear-view mirror and a sense of solidarity has been established out on the South Plains. But Texas Tech had the most successful run in school history under Leach, and if the Red Raiders struggle early, that sense of solidarity could disappear quickly. Still, the schedule sets up well, the offense figures to be as explosive as ever and the defense should be at least as good as a year ago. Tech has posted at least eight victories for eight consecutive seasons. That streak has a chance to reach nine.