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Posted: Wednesday June 4, 2008 11:58AM; Updated: Wednesday June 4, 2008 4:19PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >

Can Texas Tech make the leap?; Nutt's impact at Ole Miss, more

Story Highlights
  • With a loaded offense and improved defense, Texas Tech could be dangerous
  • The 12th regular-season game has made intersectional games appealing
  • Is the ACC any closer to becoming the next powerhouse conference?
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Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree is one of Texas Tech's 10 returning offensive starters.
Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree is one of Texas Tech's 10 returning offensive starters.
Stewart Mandel's Mailbag
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The Mailbag is feeling refreshed and relaxed following a recent European getaway. Over the span of 10 glorious, care-free days, I gouged on Parisian baguettes and Belgian waffles. I cruised canals in Amsterdam while carefully avoiding oncoming bicyclists.

But mostly, thanks to a friend of mine living in Paris, I got to hang out with all sorts of wonderful people, guys and girls hailing from such far-flung locales as India and Argentina, Italy and Tajikistan. (Yes, Tajikistan is a real country, though I am 99 percent certain I have never received a Mailbag question from one of its residents. If by chance there is a regular reader of this column who happens to hail from Tajikistan, and can provide definitive proof as such, I will happily publish his or her question next time.)

Do you know what was particularly refreshing about my time abroad? None of my aforementioned new friends knew a single thing about American college football, which means none of them wanted to talk to me about it. (One guy, upon learning my profession, did ask who I thought was going to win that night's San Antonio Spurs playoff game, to which I had to embarrassingly answer: "Who are they playing?") That may sound sacrilegious to many of you, but ask yourself this: Do you like to talk about work when you go on vacation?

It was a 100 percent clean break from all things college football, my first in about five years, and you know what? I'd recommend it to anyone. After all, it's no secret that we, the fans of this crazy sport, have an occasional penchant for ... to put it nicely, "losing touch with reality," and there's nothing like a little separation to regain one's perspective.

You know who does a particularly good job keeping football in perspective? Mike Leach. Whereas most conversations with most college coaches revolve almost entirely around one of three topics -- motivating players, recruiting players and watching tape -- Leach likes to talk about almost anything else. He, too, watches a lot of tape, but if you get him on the phone, he's just as likely to discuss his favorite New York restaurant, the last movie he saw or his disdain for Finnish toilets.

By now, most college football followers are at least mildly aware of the Texas Tech coach's numerous eccentricities -- his fixation with pirates, his unlikely kinship with Donald Trump, his spur-of-the-moment decision to drive 300-something miles to commission a portrait of himself by an artist he'd seen mentioned in a documentary -- but he remains largely a cult figure due primarily to the fact that his team has consistently remained among the sport's second tier.

Could this be the year that finally changes?

Will Texas Tech actually eclipse its perennial 9-4 record this year, stay in the top 25 all season and perhaps win a Big 12 South title? The past several years, the Raiders seem to always 1) lose a game that doesn't matter and 2) lose enough games against the juggernauts (Texas, Oklahoma) to stay out of title contention. What makes people think that this will be a different year?
-- Johnny B, San Diego.

If ever there was a year for Texas Tech to do it, this would be it. While Leach's teams always field a potent offense, he's never had as naturally gifted a quarterback as Graham Harrell, and reigning Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree deserves mention alongside Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson as one of the greatest receivers the sport has seen this decade. The offense in total returns 10 starters, which is flat out scary.

The real difference, however, is that Leach seems to have finally placed some importance on defense, promoting coordinator Ruffin McNeill in the middle of the season. In the eight games following McNeill's ascension, Tech actually led the Big 12 in total defense, and the unit's most improved area, the D-line, returns all four starters plus a couple of other key contributors.

But the moment that really caught my attention was when the Red Raiders did finally beat one of those juggernauts, then No. 3 Oklahoma 34-27 in last year's regular-season finale. Oklahoma fans would have you believe this result was solely the product of losing QB Sam Bradford to injury, but the score was 34-13 halfway through the fourth quarter, and it's unclear to me how Bradford would have prevented Crabtree from catching 12 balls for 154 yards.

This was the first moment in Leach's nine-year tenure that I actually believed Tech might be on the cusp of breaking through. And they followed that up with a Gator Bowl victory over Virginia.

The biggest concern, obviously, is what Johnny alluded to: That the Red Raiders, in typical fashion, will blow a couple early season games they have no business losing. But have you looked at that schedule? It begins with Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and UMass. Tech should absolutely be 7-0 heading into an Oct. 25 game at Kansas, and that contest, as well as Texas the next week and Oklahoma in Norman on Nov. 22, will determine whether they can win the division.

Just imagine: Texas Tech in a BCS bowl. An entire week of Leach press conferences.

YouTube might just crash.

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