With rare exception, Texas Tech’s surge to the top of the Big 12 football standings under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury has been greeted with all the bells, whistles and fanfare usually reserved for a trip to the grocery store.
Kingsbury, a cool and collected sideline figure, has overseen a quiet, calculated, consistent march to a 6-0 record in his debut season. The last Big 12 coach to begin his career with a 6-0 mark? Nobody. Kliff is one of a kind.
Under Kingsbury, 34, the Red Raiders (6-0, 3-0 in Big 12) have climbed from the bottom half of Big 12 preseason projections to No. 16 in this week’s Associated Press poll. Yet the Red Raiders, while undefeated, remain underappreciated and under-the-radar to most college football fans, including many in their own state.
The primary culprit is proximity. Tech operates in the same Lone Star State as No. 12 Baylor (5-0), home of the nation’s most prolific offense, and Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M’s 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and the current face of college football.
In addition, lots of recent headlines have been devoted to Texas coach Mack Brown’s ability to absorb a standing eight count from critics inside his own program and deliver a knockout blow to previously unbeaten Oklahoma, 36-20, in Saturday’s shocker at the Cotton Bowl.
It has taken six weeks. But in a football-crazed state, Tech has earned its share of the spotlight by becoming the first team in Texas to become bowl-eligible this season. The glare will continue to grow with each additional victory in a back-loaded schedule, starting with Saturday’s trip to West Virginia (3-3, 1-2).
The lingering question is how long the Red Raiders, who have defeated six opponents with a combined record of 12-21, can keep it rolling with the meat of the conference schedule approaching.
Tech tight end Jace Amaro does not see a stop sign in his team’s future.
“We weren’t expecting anything else. We knew we were going to be 6-0. We knew we were going to be winning every game,” Amaro said.
“That is the way our mindset has changed from this year and last year. We’re going in there to win every game. Last year, we were trying not to lose.”
Credit the enhanced swagger to Kingsbury, a former Tech quarterback who has been a galvanizing force in reuniting Red Raider Nation after three nondescript seasons under predecessor Tommy Tuberville. Also give Kingsbury props for keeping Tech undefeated despite starting two different incoming freshmen at quarterback because of injuries.
The second player on that list, Davis Webb, received Big 12 offensive player of the week honors Monday after passing for 415 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-35 victory over Iowa State. Webb’s total stands as a season high for a Big 12 quarterback, eclipsing the mark of teammate Baker Mayfield, a freshman walk-on who threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-23 victory over SMU on Aug. 30.
Together, the duo has helped Tech rank among the nation’s top 13 teams in scoring (41.8 avg.), passing yards (408.8 per game) and total offense (544 yards per game). The defense has forced 11 turnovers and ranks No. 15 nationally in points allowed (17.3 avg.). Tech is 21st in total defense (344.8 yards per game).
If not for the wild-fire offenses elsewhere in the state (Baylor, A&M) and the turmoil at Texas, there would be a bigger buzz outside of Lubbock about these Red Raiders. But the low-key approach is fine with Kingsbury, a viable midseason candidate for Big 12 coach of the year honors despite his rookie status.
“We just attack each week as our own separate bowl game,” Kingsbury said during Monday’s Big 12 conference call. “We want to get better every day and better every week … Playing at the tempo we want to play at, the hustle has really picked up. So that’s encouraging. That solves a lot of problems when guys are playing hard.”
In its past two games, Tech’s fast-break offense ran 100 plays against Kansas and 101 against Iowa State. Those are the two highest totals in the Big 12 this season. The numbers caught the attention of West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, a former Tech assistant coach during Kingsbury’s college career and a co-worker with Kingsbury at Houston on the staff of current Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.
“Kliff is a bright, young coach and was extremely competitive as a player,” said Holgorsen, who helped Kingsbury land the Houston gig and roomed with Kingsbury while their tenures overlapped on Sumlin’s staff. “I’m not surprised by the success his team is having.”
Now, Kingsbury seeks to extend Tech’s winning streak against the mentor who convinced him to go into coaching. Kingsbury credited Holgorsen with showing him how to tweak game plans to fit existing personnel and avoid forcing “a square peg into a round hole.”
If Kingsbury wins again Saturday, Tech will be 7-0, a start surpassed only once in Lubbock in the past 37 years: by the 2008 team, which started 10-0 and finished 11-2. For a rookie coach, that’s pretty heady stuff. Regardless of when the college world outside of Lubbock starts paying rapt attention.