Texas Tech has always been the red-headed stepchild of major college football in the great state of Texas. The Red Raiders played in a conference entitled the Border Conference from 1932 to 1955. They played alongside teams west of them in the conference. While they fit in geographically, they did not fit in from a quality perspective. The other Texas schools in the Border Conference were Texas-Mines (soon to change their name to Texas Western), now DII West Texas A&M, and now DIII Hardin-Simmons. When you think of quality competition, these schools don’t come to mind. The conference owned one of the original Sun Bowl berths, which the Red Raiders frequently won. However, Tech eagerly jumped for the opportunity to play alongside its major Texas brothers in the Southwest Conference, which they joined in 1956.
Sadly, in almost 40 years in the SWC, Texas Tech never came to national prominence, only seeing two co-championships. When the SWC crumbled to bits in 1994, Texas and Texas A&M were in serious talks with the Big 8 to join. Texas Tech was seen as a sure bet if the conference decided to expand to 12. Luckily for them, the Big 8 became the Big 12 in 1996, and Texas Tech joined the South Division with blue-bloods Texas and Oklahoma. While Texas Tech posted a winning record every year during the Big 12’s two-division format, they only saw one co-division championship, in 2008. While it was only a co-division championship, and they weren’t even invited to the conference title game, it was one of the most magical seasons in recent memory by any team.
Texas Tech was a completely different program in the year 2008. The Red Raiders were led by Mike Leach, who was in his 9th year at the time. Leach had transformed a middle-of-the-road program into a consistently ranked team through his amazing quarterbacks. Kliff Kingsbury was the third player to throw for 5000 yards in a season in 2002. The next year, B.J. Symons, his replacement, obliterated the passing yards record, throwing for a stunning 5833 yards in only 13 games. In 2006, sophomore Graham Harrell became the starter. In 2007, the addition of electric freshman Michael Crabtree made the receiving corps arguably the best in Leach’s tenure, and he coached Wes Welker and Danny Amendola.
All of this created a perfect storm in 2008, and prognosticators knew it. Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, a staple of preseason football in the Lone Star state, declared Texas Tech the best team in the Texas, whom also happened to have the Colt McCoy-led Texas Longhorns. Harrell and Crabtree were the center of national attention. Despite this, Tech was only 12th in the preseason AP Poll. Texas Tech started the season with four easy games, and then they played four easier Big 12 opponents. The Red Raiders, who had risen to number 7 in the BCS, had one main problem: strength-of-schedule. However, that problem was about to evaporate on the night of November 1st, 2008.
In 2008, I was a young college football fan. One of my most vivid memories of 2008 is how hyped-up the matchup between UT and Tech was. College Gameday went to Lubbock, where the Red Raider faithful enthusiastically greeted them. The mammoth crowd went berserk when Lee Corso donned the head of Raider Red and fired two rifles in the air while yelling “GO TEXAS TECH!” It was one of the better headgear moments included in Lee Corso’s impressive Gameday resume.
Surprisingly, Tech leaped to a 19-0 lead, stunning the many who were watching. At halftime, it was a stunning 22-6. Having watched Colt McCoy for two and a half years, I was still very stressed at the proposition of a comeback. Sure enough, Texas came out firing in the second half. While Texas Tech had built their lead on field goals, UT built their comeback on touchdowns. With a minute and a half left, the Longhorns ran a touchdown in, taking a 33-32 lead, their first of the night. However, I knew we had a chance with Michael Crabtree. After a successful drive, with 16 seconds left, the ball bounced off of Baron Batch’s hand into Texas safety Michael Gideon’s. It devastated me. As if sent from heaven, the referee came in signaling incomplete. He’d dropped it. There was still a chance!
I watched Graham Harrell line up in the shotgun with two receivers on either side. He threw deep to the right sideline. I watched Michael Crabtree grab the ball in tight coverage and tug free of the Texas defenders’ arms. He ran into the end zone as the clock stopped at :01. I heard Brent Musberger yell “Crabtree, PULLS FREE! AND, TOUCHDOWN RED RAIDERS, WITH A SECOND TO GO!” I jumped in the air and screamed with ecstasy. Texas Tech fans rushed the field three times that night, too anxious after watching such a great game to let that 1 second drain from the clock.
That night single-handedly made Texas Tech a fun team to follow. It catapulted them to second in the nation. The next week, another stiff test came to Lubbock in the form of the Oklahoma State Cowboys, led by a young Dez Bryant. Texas Tech blew them out, making them look even more impressive. Two weeks later, Texas Tech traveled to Norman, OK for a de facto Big 12 South championship game. The Sam Bradford Show sadly decimated the Red Raiders, cementing themselves as front-runners in the division.
Because the Big 12 South ended in a 3-way tie, the highest-ranked BCS team was chosen to fight Missouri in the title game. Because OU had lost earliest, the Sooners won the bid. Lots of Texan fans felt robbed, particularly those in Austin. However, I find it hard to convince myself either team could’ve beaten Florida, who defeated Oklahoma in the National Championship Game. For three brief weeks in 2008, Lubbock, TX was the epicenter of college football. They were the feel-good story of November 2008, and they were superheroes to children all over West Texas. While that magic we saw in November has not returned yet, Texas Tech remains one of the most fun teams to watch in college football. Here’s to hoping the magic returns soon.