Texas Tech is the only Big 12 school that has finished with a winning record every season since the league's inception in 1996 -- and the Red Raiders are a safe bet to add to that streak. But the Tech players, who have contributed to a streak of four consecutive second-tier bowl games, are not so impressed with their own accomplishments.
"Don't get me wrong. We've enjoyed going to the different bowls, but we definitely want more," senior defensive end Adell Duckett said. "We want to be in that next, upper tier of bowl games. We know people won't give us much of a chance of doing that, but that's our focus."
Tech must once again replace a record-setting quarterback, but a much more experienced defense and 16 overall returning starters could propel the Raiders into a dreamier postseason destination.
OffensePeople rolled their eyes last year when Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said his offense wouldn't miss a beat without Kliff Kingsbury. When Leach talks about his current offense's explosive potential -- even without record-setter B.J. Symons -- there's reason to believe him.
Another poised senior is waiting in the wings in Sonny Cumbie, who completed 62.5 percent of his passes last season in mop-up duties. And elusive junior college transfer Robert Johnson also appears capable of guiding the Tech attack. Leach won't officially name a started until the first week of fall practice.
Tiny Taurean Henderson is one of the most versatile backs in the Big 12, rushing for 736 yards and 10 touchdowns and adding another 611 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2003. While Tech loses its three top receivers, the return of the explosive Nehemiah Glover (77 catches for 1,081 yards) and several other talented wideouts should keep opposing defenders on edge.
In 2003, Tech's offensive line was better than it had ever been during Leach's regime, surrendering 19 fewer sacks than in the previous season. With four returning starters, the 2004 unit could be even better. Left tackle Daniel Loper is a dominant force and an All-Big 12 candidate.
DefenseThe Red Raiders are developing quite a reputation for producing outstanding defensive linemen. The next star end in the lineup is Duckett, a menacing, lightning-quick pass rusher who led the Big 12 and set single-season Texas Tech school records in sacks (14) and tackles for a loss (24.5) in 2003. The rest of the defensive front is not quite as stellar, which is why Tech signed three junior college transfers (Deke Bake, Brett Bischofberger and Charles Glover) to solidify the unit.
Brock Stratton, John Saldi and Mike Smith have a chance to form an impressive linebacking corps. Stratton is a solid run-stopper in the middle, recording 95 tackles last season. Smith and Saldi combined for another 94 stops. Junior college transfer Sylvester Brinkley adds good speed and should bolster an improving unit.
Junior free safety Vincent Meeks is the new leader of the Tech secondary after intercepting four passes and recording 54 tackles in 2003. Tech also returns two starting cornerbacks in Chad Johnson and Jabari Smith, while sophomore Antonio Huffman has shown impressive signs of progress. But the secondary remains an area of concern. Tech was 10th in the Big 12, allowing 256.3 passing yards per game.
SpecialistsPerhaps the greatest punt returner in the history of college football, Wes Welker, is gone. But the Raiders still have some quality specialists, beginning with punter Alex Reyes, who averaged 43.0 yards per kick as a freshman. Placekicker Keith Toogood provides decent range, hitting 7-of-10 field goals from between 20 and 39 yards.
Final AnalysisTo take the next step, Tech must make dramatic improvements on defense. With nine defensive starters back and the addition of five juco transfers, the Raiders aim to allow fewer than the 34 points per game they did in 2003. The Raiders don't need to be a great defense to rise in the South -- because the offense still has so much firepower -- but they need to get much better.