It's becoming a bit of a commonplace for the Texas Tech football team to face a dangerous upstart underdog on the road. Last year the Red Raiders fended off a frisky Nevada Wolf Pack squad in Reno. Three years ago they squeaked by a geeked up UTEP Miner team in frenzied El Paso.
And in 2004 Tech actually lost to New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Hold that rather unpleasant thought because the 2009 Red Raiders will face a similarly perilous road trip when they square off against the potent Houston Cougars on the road.
Could that game pose dangers similar to what Tech faced in Albuquerque?
Well there is one very real similarity. Back in 2004 the Red Raiders were breaking in a new starter at quarterback in the person of Sonny Cumbie. Likewise, Taylor Potts will still be rather wet behind the ears when Tech rolls into Houston for the fourth game of the season.
Now that may be the only striking similarity in the two scenarios, but it is an important one. As is well known, the Air Raid functions little better or worse than its quarterback. And new starters are known to struggle in the cockpit of Mike Leach's attack. Cumbie had a rough first third of the season as a new starter, and no less than Graham Harrell endured serious misery when he first started as a sophomore. It is well within the realm of possibility that Potts will take his lumps early on in 2009.
There are, of course, stark differences between the New Mexico team Cumbie saw in 2004 and the Houston club Potts will see in 2009. The Lobos were a stingy defensive team that sported an unorthodox defensive scheme thanks to then head coach Rocky Long. That was a tough out for Cumbie.
Houston will pose nowhere near as great a challenge defensively. The Cougars, playing in the C-USA, were only 101st nationally in total defense a year ago and return a mere four starters. Houston will field one of the weakest defenses Tech will see in 2009.
But that is not where the pressure will lie for Potts and his offense. You see, the Cougars were also No. 2 nationally in total offense and welcome back seven starters including Case Keenum, who is probably one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the country.
So, even if one factors in an improved Tech defense, it is likely that Houston will score a great deal on the Red Raiders and the pressure will then be squarely on Potts and company to exceed the Cougar offensive output.
Will the new quarterback be up to the task? How will his confidence be after having faced the Texas Longhorns on the road the week before? We obviously cannot know the answers to those questions, but we cannot deny the worrisome validity of those queries either.
That said, Texas Tech should beat Houston. The Red Raiders have ascended high enough up the college football food chain that small fry like the Cougars should not have the stones to bump them off. But if a raw and struggling Potts, dazed and bewildered following a beat-down in Austin, does not right the ship in the Bayou City, the worst is a distinct possibility.
Now for argument's sake, what would a Tech loss to Houston mean? In the big scheme of things, very little. Viewed in terms of multiple seasons, the loss would be an aberration easily explained away by looking at Tech's quarterback situation and comparing it to Houston's. But in terms of 2009 alone, such a loss could portend bad things.
If one assumes that the Red Raider have already lost to Texas, a defeat at the paws of the Cougars would put them at 2-2 on the year. Following the trip to Houston, Tech would catch a couple of breathers, with New Mexico and Kansas State coming to Lubbock.
But the remainder of the schedule would look intimidating. The only gimme would be Texas A&M in Lubbock. Games at Nebraska and Oklahoma State would figure as likely losses. Home bouts with Kansas and Oklahoma would be dicey at best. And a neutral-site matchup against Robert Griffin and the Baylor Bears would likely be a toss-up.
If the Red Raiders lose at Houston, a worst-case scenario of a losing season would not be out of the realm of possibility. To avoid a huge dropoff from the storybook 2008 campaign, Potts would have to get ahead of the learning curve immediately after the loss to the Cougars and finish the season the way Cumbie and the 2004 team did.
And that is what it ultimately would come down to. The Red Raiders would either struggle through an uncharacteristically woeful campaign, or they would rebound with a vengeance and author another satisfying season. With any luck, this "What if?" will never come to pass.