Texas Tech opened the 2015 season against FCS team—and presumptive FCS title-contender—Sam Houston State in Lubbock. The prediction from yours truly was that SHSU would throw a bit of a scare into the Red Raiders, and they did just that, losing in Lubbock by a respectable 59-45 count.
That score proved to be a pretty good predictor of what was to come for Tech in 2015 as the Red Raider offense put up big numbers against almost everybody on the schedule, and the defense had a hard time stopping anybody. When you give up 45 points at home on opening night against an FCS offense, the stars are likely aligned against you.
The 2016 Red Raiders will again open the season against an FCS team from Texas in Stephen F. Austin. Tech is 2-0 all-time against the Lumberjacks, winning 58-3 in 2001 and 61-13 in 2013. And while SFA returns 16 starters, this outfit should be less salty than Sam Houston was a year ago.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. (CT) from Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock and will air nationally on Fox Sports Net.
The Lumberjacks began the 2015 season by losing their first five games—including a 70-7 drubbing by TCU in Fort Worth—but turned it around somewhat in the second half, winning four of their final six games en route to a 4-7 season.
SFA, which is coached by third-year head man Clint Conque, will be breaking in new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, whose noteworthy career has included head coaching stints at BYU and Louisiana Tech, as well an offensive coordinator position with the Chicago Bears. His offense deploys both a fullback and a tight end in significant measure, so look for the Lumberjacks to test Tech on the ground. The fact that SFA quarterback Zach Conque is a dual-threat signal-caller only makes that likelihood more certain.
That said, Stephen F. Austin was not an offensive juggernaut last season, and they lose three starters from the offensive line, so this will not be Oklahoma, Baylor or TCU. In fact, defense should be SFA’s strong suit in 2016.
True sophomore Loren Easly may not even start against the Red Raiders—senior Jashawa West, last year’s primary starter may get the call—but will likely get most of the carries, and is more than capable of doing plenty of damage.
Fresh from the high school ranks, Easly led the Lumberjacks last season with 759 rushing yards. He also recorded four rushing touchdowns and averaged six yards per carry. Typically, when a true freshman makes that sort of an impact at running back, he’s a special talent.
In addition to starring in football at Houston Westside, Easly was a standout track performer, and he has the speed to take it to the house from anywhere on the field, as he demonstrated to TCU with a burst of 75 yards for a touchdown. He also ripped off an 80-yard touchdown against Sam Houston.
Easly is a surprisingly—for a young back—patient runner who reads his blocks well and shows excellent vision. SFA’s lone hope for a win in Lubbock will be in controlling the ball with Easly—among others—toting the pill, piling up first downs, and scoring on long drives.
Just as Easly was not a primary starter for SFA last season, neither was John Franklin. The lack of starts, however, did not prevent the Greenville native from earning second team All Southland Conference honors, the only Lumberjack defender to reach that level of achievement.
Franklin recorded 32 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and five quarterback hurries. He recorded a season high five tackles against the TCU Horned Frogs as well, so he will not be daunted by Big 12 competition.
At the conclusion of SFA’s spring camp, Coach Conque stated that defensive line was “the position that continued to shine all spring.” Look for Texas Tech’s revamped offensive line, and in particular, tackles Baylen Brown and Terence Steele, to get a stern challenge in game one.