Here's why Texas Tech football is the Big 12 team you need to watch in 2018

Five years ago feels like forever. Indeed, 2013 was the last time Texas Tech won eight games in a season. Baker Mayfield was a walk-on freshman and coach Kliff Kingsbury was the favorite son who came home to Lubbock, Texas, where he belonged. 

Since then, Texas Tech has settled into a .500 team that couldn't break through even with some transcendent talent at quarterback. It got to the point last season where a 27-23 win at Texas to become bowl-eligible is what gave Tech just enough assurance to keep Kingsbury around for another year. In hindsight, that could prove to be a major turning point because the 2018 Red Raiders have the pieces in place to be the Big 12's team to watch. 

This can refer to a number of things. It could be a team that unexpectedly jumps into the playoff race or wins a conference championship. Realistically, Texas Tech is not that team. It is, however, good enough to get back to that eight-win benchmark -- maybe even nine wins with a bowl appearance -- and pull off a classic Texas Tech upset in Lubbock against a favored opponent. After taking some low-key positive steps forward last year without quarterback Pat Mahomes, this year's Red Raiders group could be primed for even bigger things. 

Offense won't have familiar names, but when has that mattered?

A year ago, replacing Mahomes sounded like an impossible task. Oh, but would you look at that: Nic Shimonek threw for 3,963 yards and 33 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, and he posted a respectable passer rating of 152.09. Three guys named Mayfield, Mason Rudolph and Will Grier were the only Big 12 quarterbacks to be statistically better. 

Past success doesn't indicate future success, but there's enough of a sample size to show Kingsbury knows what he's doing with quarterbacks. Next in line appears to be McLane Carter, who didn't impress in one start vs. Texas in 2017 but has taken a lot of the first-string reps in preseason practice. While it doesn't sound like the offense has another Mahomes on the depth chart, it also doesn't sound like Texas Tech feels it needs one.

"Just play smart. We don't need anyone to necessarily win the game, but they can't lose the game," offensive coordinator Kevin Johns told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

And while the Red Raiders don't have many returning starters at skill positions, there's still game and program experience. Wide receivers T.J. Vasher, Antoine Wesley and Quan Shorts appeared in all 13 games last season, and Vasher looks like the next big thing after catching five passes in four of Tech's final six games. Running back Tre King also played in all 13 games and carried the ball 131 times -- one carry short of leading rusher Justin Stockton

The one area where Tech is experienced is the offensive line, which is perhaps the most important position given the turnover elsewhere. Every single starter this season started at least one game last year and there are 93 career starts, per Phil Steele. Center Paul Stawarz, guard Madison Akamnonu and tackle Travis Bruffy each earned All-Big 12 honorable mentions last year. 

Other than Vasher (maybe) there aren't many household names on this offense, but that doesn't mean they're not ready to fill those shoes. Kingsbury has led top-25 scoring offenses in four of his five years in Lubbock. Even with a mostly new batch of starters, there's enough coming back to feel confident in what the offense can do. 

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Receiver T.J. Vasher should have a breakout season for the Red Raiders offense.  USATSI

Don't laugh, but defense is the key

A quick glance over the raw stats from last year showed, again, Texas Tech's defense at or near the bottom of the Big 12 in many major categories. But when you're talking about a program that's been defense-optional, context is key. 

The reality is Tech's defense made enough of a jump from 2016 to 2017 to move the needle. In fact, the Red Raiders made the biggest improvement in the Big 12 in from one year to the next in points per game allowed (43.5 to 32.2), yards per carry allowed (5.73 to 4.31) and yards per pass attempt allowed (8.6 to 7.2). It also improved, albeit marginally, in third down conversion percentage, red zone touchdown percentage and chunk plays of 20 or more yards allowed. All of this is even more impressive when you consider the defense wasn't disruptive at all, ranking last in the conference in sacks and tackles for loss. 

Put succinctly: Texas Tech's defense still gave up yards and points, just in quantities that are more reasonable against the high-powered offenses found in the Big 12. It compensated in part by leading the conference with 29 takeaways -- and when a defense is not a shut-down unit, those count as key stops.  

The point behind this stat overload is this: Texas Tech returns pretty much everyone from that defense, including stud linebacker and leading tackler Dakota Allen. The senior was Pro Football Focus' No. 7 overall linebacker (at nearly 1,000 snaps played) and one of my top 25 returning players for 2018

Returning starters isn't a guaranteed source of improvement; in this case, however, Kingsbury's faith in defensive coordinator David Gibbs does appear to be paying off, even if one step at a time. If this group, which returns nearly 90 percent of its tackles from a season ago, takes another step forward it could be a serviceable defense by any measure across any conference. In the Big 12, though, that might be what this program needs for a breakthrough. 

The schedule isn't entirely team-friendly, but it's close

Opening-week games don't always end up meaning what they appear to mean at first. As such, sometimes we hastily assign meaning to them before we really know what that is. Take Texas and Notre Dame from 2016. A double overtime thriller felt like an instant classic in the moment, but neither team finished with a winning record. 

Still, Ole Miss in Houston in Week 1 feels like a good litmus test for Texas Tech. That aforementioned new-look offense? It'll be tested right away. If that defense has really improved, it'll find a way to slow down one of the best wide receiver units in all of college football. Win that game and Tech gets some mojo quickly. 

The return of the "Lubbock factor" is something to watch, too. It can't be measured in the way other stats are, but it's there all the same -- or, at least, it used to be. Texas Tech hasn't had that true signature home upset in a minute, though it's come close a couple of times. The Red Raiders nearly pulled off a major win over Oklahoma State last season. Three years, ago, No. 3 TCU needed an astonishing, last minute tip-drill to escape Lubbock with a 55-52 win. However, the last time a highly ranked team had its worst Lubbock-based fears realized was in 2012 when No. 5 West Virginia was introduced to just what a "Twilight Zone" that place can be. However, the only thing that game did was expose the Mountaineers as a paper tiger, as they then lost four more consecutive games. 

All of that can change in 2018. Houston, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas all come to Lubbock. Houston has a potential No. 1 draft pick in Ed Oliver, CBS Sports' Preseason Player of the Year, and is viewed as a contender in the AAC West. Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas are at or near the top of the Big 12 preseason media poll. There are opportunities -- early, late and often in between -- to reclaim some of that Lubbock magic. 

CBS Sports Writer

Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

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