Texas Tech football: A different challenge awaits Matt Wells in Lawrence

LAWRENCE, KS - OCTOBER 7: Quarterback Peyton Bender
LAWRENCE, KS - OCTOBER 7: Quarterback Peyton Bender /

As the Texas Tech football team travels to Lawrence today, Matt Wells must make certain to avoid being the victim of an embarrassing upset.

Today, the Texas Tech football team finds itself in an unusual place, entering a Big 12 game as a substantial favorite.   Thus, after spending most of the season focusing on how to beat the teams higher up in the Big 12’s hierarchy, Matt Wells’ focus today has to be on making certain that his team does not suffer a humiliating upset.

According to The Action Network, Tech is a 4.5-point favorite, which may not be as large of a spread as many Red Raider fans would expect.  Still, anyone would consider a loss to the Jayhawks a monumental failure and a new low for a program that has seen its share in the last decade.

For Wells, this is a new challenge as far as his time as Texas Tech head coach is concerned.  Instead of getting his team ready to face a national contender like Oklahoma or Big 12 rivals like Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Iowa State who are, like Tech, trying to move to the top of the conference’s middle-class in hopes of closing some ground on the Sooners, the first-year Red Raider head coach has to convince his team to put forth its best effort against the doormat of the conference in a stadium that will be far from at capacity.

Unfortunately, the Red Raiders have not played the role of the prohibitive favorite all that often in recent years.  Outside of when playing the Jayhawks, Tech has only been looked at as the Goliath when playing FCS opponents or teams from outside the Power 5 conferences.  Sometimes, even higher-profile Group of 6 programs like Hoston enter their matchups with the Red Raiders as trendy picks to win.

But though this program has not proven adept at knocking off the teams above it in the Big 12 with any regularity since the late 2000s, it has done a great job of avoiding the types of upsets that are going to draw ridicule from others around the nation.

Tech has not lost to an FCS team, which is something that many others can’t claim.  In recent years, such proud programs as Michigan, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Florida, and Arkansas have all been stunned by FCS opponents.

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The closest the Red Raiders have come to being ensnared in such an upset was in 2014 when Davis Webb and DeAndre Washington had big games to help hold off a rally from Central Arkansas in a 42-34 win to open the year.  Since then, every game against an FCS team has been decided by 14 points or more.

Tech has also been fantastic against FBS teams from outside of the Power 5 conferences.  Including this year’s 45-10 win over UTEP, the Red Raiders have won their last 15 such games dating back to 2009’s 29-28 loss at Houston.

That brings us to Tech’s success against the closest the Big 12 has to offer in regards to a FCS or non-Power 5 team, Kansas,  The Red Raiders are 19-1 all-time against the Jayhawks with the only loss coming in 2001 in Lubbock.

That success spans a time in the middle of the 2000s when KU was not a laughing stock but a top-25 program.  And since KU has fallen to the depths of the sport, the Red Raiders have had little trouble in this series.

Since 2011, Tech’s average margin of victory over KU has been 24.1 points.  During that time, the closest game was a 41-34 Red Raider victory at home in 2012.

For all the two head coaches in between Mike Leach and Matt Wells did wrong (and there was plenty) they at least kept from being humbled by what has been arguably the worst Power 5 program in the nation since before Obama took office.

Thus, Wells faces somewhat of a no-win situation today.  Beating up on KU will garner him little favor with the fan base but dropping a game against the conference dregs would essentially kill any semblance of goodwill and optimism he’s been able to build among his constituency.

How this game goes will tell us quite a bit about this coaching staff in regard to how well they can motivate their team.  Of course, coming off of back-to-back losses, each of which was frustrating for different reasons, the motivation for the team should be intrinsic this week.

But we know that counting on college kids to be motivated and focused at all times is like asking a dog to sit still through the entirety of Gone With the Wind.  If Wells has his team sharp and playing at its best tonight in the conference’s sleepiest football environment where the student line to get into the first Jayhawk basketball game of the season is likely to already surpass the expected the student turnout for tonight’s football game, it will speak well of the culture that he is building.

Last fall, Kansas beat TCU in Lawrence 27-26.  Two years prior, the Jayhawks took down Texas 24-21 in OT, also in Lawrence.  Thus, Wells has to point no further than to two of his program’s biggest in-state measuring sticks for examples of what can happen when teams take a trip to KU lightly.

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But Kansas has won a grand total of five Big 12 games this decade.  Fortunately, none have come against Texas Tech.  If Matt Wells wants to have any hope of his first season being something he can build on, he needs to make certain that he can keep this program’s only current streak of dominance over a Big 12 foe alive and well.