Kliff Kingsbury and the Red Raiders host the Eagles from the FCS ranks hoping to get 2017 off to a winning start
The Texas Tech Red Raiders started 3-1 last season, but suffered through a largely disappointing Big 12 slate and finished 5-7. Tech missed a bowl bid for the second time in head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first four seasons at the helm. As a result, Kingsbury enters 2017 with on one of the hottest seats in college football.
A turnaround is possible, but it will be difficult given the Red Raiders must replace a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback and fix what was the worst defense in the nation a year ago, statistically speaking.
FCS member Eastern Washington has a history of pulling Week 1 upsets, having beaten Washington State 45-42 last season and topping No. 25 Oregon State 49-46 in 2013. The Eagles have a new head coach, Aaron Best, who was promoted from offensive coordinator. Best succeeded Beau Baldwin after the national championship-winning head coach left to run the offense at Cal.
Eastern Washington at Texas Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX Sports Net/FOX Sports Go
Spread: Texas Tech -14
Three Things to Watch
Both Texas Tech and Eastern Washington led their respective divisions in passing in 2016. However, Tech’s signal-caller, Patrick Mahomes II, is now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Senior Nic Shimonek is scheduled to make his first career start for the Red Raiders Saturday. A transfer from Iowa, Shimonek completed 38 of 58 (65.5 percent) of his pass attempts for six touchdowns and one interception as Mahomes’ backup last season. Given the explosive nature of Kingsbury’s offense, and the talent back for the Red Raiders at receiver, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Shimonek at the top of the FBS leaderboard in passing in 2017.
Eastern Washington welcomes back junior Gage Gubrud, who completed 67.7 percent of his passes for an FCS-record 5,160 yards last season. Gubrud threw 48 touchdown passes and was intercepted 14 times. He also is the team’s leading returning rusher, having gained 606 yards and five TDs on the ground a year ago.
2. One of the best in the FCS
Texas Tech has won 16 straight games against FCS opponents and hasn’t lost to an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) team since North Texas beat the Red Raiders in 1988. However, this Eastern Washington is not your typical FCS opponent.
Gubrud is one of 12 starters (six on offense, six on defense) and 51 letterwinners returning from a team that averaged 42.4 points and 401 passing yards per game and advanced to the FCS semifinals. The Eagles lost 40-38 to Youngstown State in dramatic fashion, and finished with a 12-2 overall record, including 8-0 in Big Sky Conference play. Despite losing several key contributors, most notably 2015 Walter Payton Award-winning receiver Cooper Kupp, the media picked Eastern Washington to finish second in Big Sky in 2017. The Eagles are ranked No. 6 in Athlon Sports’ FCS Power Poll.
3. Improvement on defense
Simply put, Texas Tech’s defense was awful in 2016. The Red Raiders surrendered an average of 43.5 points and 554.3 yards of total offense per game, both of which ranked dead last (128 teams) in FBS. Eight of Texas Tech’s 12 opponents scored at least 44 points against the Red Raiders in 2016.
Tech was just as bad against the run (238.6 ypg, No. 116 in FBS) as it was against the pass (315.8 ypg, No. 125), so there was plenty of blame to go around. The Red Raiders also surrendered 7.05 yards per play, which ranked No. 126 in the country, so pace of play is no excuse, either.
The biggest thing standing between Texas Tech and a winning season is the ability to slow opponents down, but there is reason to be optimistic the Red Raiders can improve. First of all, defensive coordinator David Gibbs is back for his third season, giving the unit consistency from a coaching standpoint.
Also, five starters are back from last year’s squad, including leading tacklers Jordyn Brooks and Jah’shawn Johnson. Finally, 10 newcomers join the unit as transfers from junior colleges and other FBS programs, including the return of Dakota Allen, who ranked second on the team in tackles as a freshman in 2015, but played at East Mississippi Community College last season.
If there’s one thing the Red Raiders have done well under head coach Kliff Kingsbury, it’s score. Even with a new quarterback, offense shouldn’t be an issue for Texas Tech. Of course, as always, the question is whether or not the Red Raiders can force enough stops on defense to win.
Though first-year head coach Aaron Best hopes Eastern Washington will be more balanced on offense after leading FCS in passing last season, the Eagles should be hang with Texas Tech on that side of the ball. Therefore, it’s likely we’ll see another shootout in Lubbock. But with the influx of talent on the defense, there’s reason to expect the Red Raiders do enough to move to 1-0.
Prediction: Texas Tech 45, Eastern Washington 35
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Gage Gubrud photo courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics)