Texas Tech? Really? I thought only Oklahoma and Texas were allowed to take home the Big 12 title. There was an ugly rumor last season about a couple of teams from Kansas and Missouri. And even old A&M might be due for a resurgence, provided new head coach Mike Sherman can recruit Brett Favre. But Tech?

It’s not a High Plains blizzard, a message-board fantasy, or a Mike Leach fever dream. There, plastered on the front of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, the state’s fall agenda-setter, are the grinning mugs of three Red Raiders: Coach Leach, quarterback Graham Harrell, and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. In a May power ranking on Sports Illustrated’s Web site, Tech climbed to eighth in the nation, ahead of Texas and Texas A&M. And in July, ESPN commentators Mark May and Desmond Howard picked Harrell and Crabtree as favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. “Those are the expectations Oklahoma has, not the kind Texas Tech has,” says Chris Level, who publishes redraidersports.com and co-hosts Leach’s radio show.

Of course, Tech has been pinballing between mere respectability and near excellence for years; the Red Raiders reached number seven in the BCS standings in 2005. So how, it must be asked, did the preseason party get shifted to Lubbock? And can Tech finally put together a dream season that causes long-term annoyance for the rest of the Big 12?

The glorious rise of Tech football can be traced to three factors. First and foremost there is Leach, the law-degree-toting coach who never played college football and whose face always seems to be wearing an expression halfway between bafflement and hauteur. Leach gained a national reputation when he was profiled by Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, in a 2005 New York Times Magazine cover story. The piece, which I hear was widely read on the Upper West Side, revealed that Leach had an interest in pirates—not East Carolina Pirates but the Blackbeard variety—and considered his players to be his own band of piratical renegades. It was an appropriate metaphor, at once reflecting Leach’s infectious swagger and Tech’s massive inferiority complex.

Off the field, the treat for fans has been Leach’s postgame press conferences, those great exhibitions of improvisational theater. After a last-second win against Texas A&M in 2006, he remarked, “Once in a while, a pirate can beat a soldier.” After a close loss to Texas in 2007, the team’s fifth straight defeat to the Longhorns, Leach darkly suggested that the Red Raiders had been worked over by the referees, noting that he found it “disturbing” that one of the refs lived in Austin. His conspiracy theory earned him a $10,000 fine from the Big 12, the largest in the conference’s history. Fans set up a fund called I Like Mike, but Leach paid the fine himself and used the donations to buy four hundred holiday hams for charity.

Leach’s tendency to ham it up is almost as famous as his spread offense, one of the more elegantly designed schemes that have come to college football in the past decade. It is a system in which wide receivers run short routes, crisscrossing the field like kids at recess, and then, after receiving the soft toss from the quarterback, head up the field in a hurry. Tech is not able to compete with Texas and A&M for the fastest and tallest wide receivers. So Leach has made an art of unearthing the slow and the runty, provided they’ve got good hands and can run precise routes.

Runts might put a scare into your rivals every now and then, but they won’t win you a conference title. And this leads us to the third reason I’m making such a fuss about Tech: Leach finally has better pirates. After unveiling a succession of fifth-year-senior quarterbacks who rewrote the NCAA record book, Leach finally found a stud who could stay for a while. Harrell is a six-three senior from Ennis who set a slew of high school records, and last season, he threw for an incredible 5,705 yards and 48 touchdowns, winning the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation’s best passer.

Crabtree, the kind of wide receiver that YouTube shrines are built for, was a quarterback at Dallas Carter who turned down Oklahoma and A&M to play in Lubbock. While not particularly fast—he runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash—he is a master of angles, and he won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver last season as a freshman, giving Tech a battery of postseason hardware.

What does it all mean? Well, this is where things get sticky. Tech fans will remember that we have been here before. There was that strange 1994 season, when Spike Dykes’s team finished in a five-way tie for the Southwest Conference title and won the right to be destroyed by USC in the Cotton Bowl. There was the 2005 season, when Tech loomed as a roadblock in UT’s run for the national championship. The Longhorns rolled 52-17. “About half the fan base are believers,” says Level. “The other half are really nervous, setting themselves up for the letdown—typical Tech.”

Perhaps I’m drinking too much Captain Morgan, but something tells me this is the year. Oh, not a USC-style season, mind you. Perhaps not even a conference title. But the kind of ten-win, big-bowl season that Lubbock so desperately craves. The kind that gives Tech a spot in the conference hierarchy as something other than an entertaining sideshow. Leach’s Achilles’ heel has been an absolutely terrible defense. Last September, coordinator Lyle Setencich stepped down and was replaced by Ruffin McNeill. (Nobody could remember why Setencich had been hired over McNeill in the first place.) Tech’s defense finished a respectable forty-seventh in the nation in yards per game. Barring injury, Harrell and Crabtree are going to play catch all season, and if defenses focus on Crabtree, senior receiver Eric Morris—who stands five eight, wouldn’t you know?—will make them pay.

As a fan of one of the conference’s more successful schools, I’m almost rooting for Tech. If anything, the Red Raiders are blessed comic relief. Leach kicked off this season’s Big 12 media days by launching an attack not on opposing coaches but on—wait for it—DFW Airport. He contended that its layout was a “confusing mess” that had prevented writers from traveling to Lubbock (thus neglecting Lubbock’s own role as a principal travel deterrent). It was a new and promising field of inquiry for Leach. If he passes on a legal career after he leaves coaching, the world could always use another architecture critic.