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Texas Tech quarterback Cody Hodges (10), trying to break away from Texas' Tim Crowder, has passed for 4,001 yards and 30 touchdowns as the Red Raiders have gained on its biggest rivals.
AP File Photo
Texas Tech quarterback Cody Hodges (10), trying to break away from Texas' Tim Crowder, has passed for 4,001 yards and 30 touchdowns as the Red Raiders have gained on its biggest rivals.

Tech's long journey
Tide opponent has built decent program despite being a second-class citizen in its own state

By Kyle Veazey
DAILY Sports Writer

kveazey@decaturdaily.com 340-2460

The road trip to Lubbock, Texas, home of Texas Tech University, is excruciating. From the east, Lubbock is still six hours from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and learning that news when you think you're almost there is punishment enough.

Soon, the road turns desolate. Only the oil boomtown Abilene stands significantly between Forth Worth and Lubbock. One exits the interstate on U.S. 84 soon after, but Lubbock is still another 120 miles.

Upon (finally) arriving, Lubbock is revealed as little more than a big grid of buildings on an open plain. Tech's campus has a charming Spanish Renaissance theme of architecture, but that's about the only notable possession of the city.

"It helps us focus on schoolwork and football," Tech defensive end Keyunta Dawson said, only half-joking.

Las Vegas, New Orleans, Miami, this isn't.

In Lubbock, Mike Leach has built one of the nation's most intriguing college football programs, in a spot, and at a school, that plays second fiddle to much of the rest of the state. About 400 miles away in Austin, the Texas Longhorns are preparing for a national title game.

Over in College Station, nearly 500 miles southwest, about 85,000 pack Kyle Field for one of college football's most unique Saturday afternoons.

Even in Norman, Okla., the hated Oklahoma Sooners don't conduct many interviews without their 2000 national championship trophy in the background.

But in Lubbock? The Red Raiders are getting ready for a Jan. 2 Cotton Bowl matchup with Alabama, having beaten the Aggies and the Sooners en route to a 9-2 record.

Even some longtime Texas football followers aren't quite sure how.

"Texas Tech, let's face it, it's a little off the beaten path, being in Lubbock," said Dave Campbell, whose magazine, Dave Campbell's Texas Football, has served as the Bible of Lone Star State football for almost 50 years.

"It's not the easiest place for Leach to recruit for. They really don't have the resources, by that I mean the athletic budget, or the tradition spread over the years that a Texas or Oklahoma or A&M does.

"Now, they're making it tough on A&M."

Recruiting rankings, the inexact science that they are, underscore Campbell's point. In the last four years of Rivals.com's national team recruiting rankings, Texas Tech has had an average ranking of 40th. Oklahoma's average ranking was fifth, Texas' 11th and Texas A&M's 13th.

Still, the Red Raiders narrowly beat Oklahoma 23-21 this season and whipped Dennis Franchione's Aggies 56-17. Conquering Texas is still a problem — the Longhorns rolled 52-17.

"Tech, what they do a good job of, is identifying players that fit their system," Rivals.com's Bobby Burton said. "Tech has always had a problem — not of getting one or two blue chips here and there — but getting a whole class full. That's where they get caught."

No one can say that Texas Tech is pushing the Longhorns for football supremacy in the state. That gaudy loss on national television emphasized the gulf that remains between Texas Tech and the old money schools like Texas.

But Tech is getting closer.

"They've kind of caught up with A&M, but I wouldn't say they've caught up with them in the money they raise, the facilities," Campbell said.

Assembling the talent for a championship football team has been Leach's biggest challenge since he arrived in Lubbock in 1999, fresh off a stint as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator and not far removed from two years running the wide-open offense of Hal Mumme at Kentucky.

Competing in Texas recruiting battles was "by far our biggest priority," Leach said soon after taking the job. But winning them would prove difficult. A player offered by both Texas and Texas Tech would rarely choose Lubbock, and that wasn't going to change overnight.

Eventually, the highly recruited athletes came. One was McKinner Dixon, a defensive lineman from Lufkin, Texas. He weighed pitches from LSU, Texas A&M and Texas before deciding to play for Texas Tech.

Dixon started at defensive end as a true freshman in the second game of this season, the earliest a freshman had started at Tech under Leach. In Tech's win over Oklahoma, he had eight tackles.

"Tech felt like a home to me," Dixon said. "It kind of felt like a good home. I think those big cities like Austin and College Station, (they're) not my kind of lifestyle."

Dawson, a junior, is another example. Coming out of highly regarded Evangel Christian in Shreveport, La., Dawson's choices also boiled to LSU and Texas Tech.

At the time, LSU coach Nick Saban had just appeared in the Cotton Bowl, and the Tigers were on the verge of winning a national title. Tech had just won the no-name Tangerine Bowl.

It was Leach, with the reputation as an offensive genius, who won over Dawson, a defensive player.

"Lots of people don't know he's a really cool guy and everything," Dawson said. "I felt that we were going to have good defensive coaches here. He's a mastermind of football."

The Red Raiders are preparing for their first January bowl since the 1995 Cotton Bowl, and a win over Alabama would almost certainly give them a top-15 final ranking, the school's first since 1973.

So it begs the question: Can Texas Tech complete its mission and level the playing field completely, becoming a real national title contender?

"Maybe on a rare occasion," Campbell said.

Just don't tell that to Dixon. After all, the Red Raiders have the Longhorns in Lubbock next year.

"Who knows? We might be in there in a couple years," he said. "I predict next year, in fact."

Leveling the playing field

Texas Tech's recruiting classes haven't measured up to its chief rivals, yet the Red Raiders have fared decently against those schools, Texas being the lone exception. A look at those schools' recruiting classes in recent years, using Rivals.com national team rankings:

Texas Tech Texas Texas A&M Oklahoma

2006 (current) 18 1 16 15

2005 37 20 8 3

2004 33 10 13 8

2003 44 15-tie 10 4

2002 48 1 23 7

2005 result: L, 52-17 W, 56-17 W, 23-21

Source: Rivals.com, which computes its rankings by using an average total of recruits' star rankings, on a five-star scale.

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