January 4, 2008

Will greatness carry into 2008?

It's probably only fitting that Alex Trlica, one of the best kickers in Texas Tech history, should have kick-started the Red Raiders' 2008 season. The senior from Friendswood who booted Tech into overtime and ultimately a record-setting come-from-behind victory in last year's Insight Bowl, put the clincher on another stunning Red Raider comeback by nailing a 41-yard field goal in the waning seconds in the 2008 Gator Bowl.

But the ramifications of Trlica's heroism could extend far beyond a "mere" win in a bowl game. The benefits stemming from Tech's eye-popping defeat of the Virginia Cavaliers before a nationwide New Year's Day audience will be both concrete and ineffable.

Most obviously, the Red Raiders finish their season at 9-4 rather than 8-5. Tech under Mike Leach continues to bang angrily on the talismanic 10-win door (this is Tech's third nine-win season in Leach's eight-season tenure on the High Plains), and anybody can see that it's just a matter of time before they kick the sucker in.

Additionally, the Red Raiders will almost certainly finish the season ranked in the top 25, perhaps the top 20. Prior to bowl play Tech was on the fringe of the rankings and their upending of the #20 Cavaliers should be more than enough to hoist the Red Raiders into the ranks of college football's best.

But much like Tech's monumental win over the #4 Oklahoma Sooners to conclude the regular season, the impact of the Gator Bowl triumph will be psychological and atmospheric more than anything else.

The win over Virginia is yet another cinder block in the culture of winning that Leach is building in Lubbock. And by knocking off yet another stout opponent the Red Raiders elevated those ramparts further still. From those lofty turrets Tech players, coaches and fans can clearly see the college landscape before them. And it is a vista that presents every opportunity for championships.

Now had the Red Raiders lost in the Gator Bowl it would not have been devastating-the Tech program is made of sterner stuff than that. But a loss would certainly have poisoned the atmosphere somewhat. All of the good vibrations currently emanating from the program would be far less palpable. The spring would not be in the Red Raider step.

For instance, coaches would be compelled to convince recruits of Tech's impending greatness rather than pointing to the proof. Coaches would labor into the houses of recruits dragging a ball and chain rather than floating in on cloud nine.

And the recruits can tell the difference. They know when coaches believe what they're saying and when they don't. Coming of the stellar Gator Bowl victory Tech's coaches will believe their own Bible. And the chances are very good that they will gain a few coveted converts.

Those coaches will be able to point to more than just the Gospel of the Gator Bowl, too. They will be able to make a powerful case that signing up with the Red Raiders will net them a Big 12 championship, and maybe more right off the bat.

The Red Raiders lose Alex Trlica, but not a whole lot more than that.

On offense, the only starter not returning is inside receiver Danny Amendola.

Quarterback Graham Harrell, a sure-fire Heisman and All American candidate will return to lead the nation's leading pass offense. Michael Crabtree, the best receiver in the country as a freshman, will be back to catch more touchdowns as a sophomore. A stable of running backs will be in the fold, too. Starter Aaron Crawford, backup Kobey Lewis, talented redshirt Baron Batch, and schoolboy phenom Harrison Jeffers will guarantee that Tech has a ground game to match its passing attack. And, oh yeah, the entire starting offensive line returns.

Defensively things are looking up as well.

The entire defensive line returns, and it features future stars in defensive end Brandon Williams and tackle Colby Whitlock. Two gifted linebackers in Marlon Williams and Brian Duncan will also be back to lay some wood. And the Red Raiders will welcome back one of the nation's best if most unsung cornerbacks in Jamar Wall. Returning punter Jonathan LaCour, moreover, is more athletic than most teams' starting quarterback.

So it's all there. The talent, the experience, the coaching, the confidence-heck, even the schedule doesn't look too rough by Big 12 standards. The Red Raiders will be good enough to beat every single team on that schedule. The only trick will be making sure that the team consistently plays at or near peak levels. If that happens, Tech might even be able to overcome the loss of Alex Trlica and snag a championship trophy. Or two.

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