Burning questions for Texas Tech

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Texas Tech has received unprecedented national publicity this summer, becoming the Big 12's "Boys of Summer" because of their notoriety and hopes of become a dark horse BCS buster.

Now, it's up to the Red Raiders to live up to that hype. The return of Sammy Baugh winner Graham Harrell and Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree provides them with the nation's most potent one-two passing attack. Three running backs return for an offense that misses only one starter from last season.

And eight defensive starters return to be directed by new coordinator Ruffin McNeill, who helped the group improve after he received battlefield promotion to interim coordinator midway through last season.

Can the Red Raiders break the ceiling and contend for the first conference championship and BCS bowl appearance since joining the Big 12? It will be difficult in the ultra-competitive South Division. Here are five questions that have to be settled for them to get there.

1. How good will the defense really play?

McNeill says the defensive unit has returned with a cohesive mindset forged after several strong performances last season. But can it play that way on the road against Oklahoma and against traditional nemesis Texas? It remains the biggest question mark for the Red Raiders heading into the season.

2. Can the Red Raiders avoid slipping up on a lightly-regarded opponent?

Texas Tech has been prone to underperforming against lesser foes throughout coach Mike Leach's tenure. The Red Raiders stubbed their toe with a home losses to Colorado last season after losing to the winless Buffaloes in Boulder the season before. If they want to challenge for a conference championship, Texas Tech needs to play consistently throughout the season and avoid these slip-ups.

3. Who will emerge at cornerback?

The Red Raiders boast a lockdown corner on one side with Jamar Wall. And McNeill thought he had another one with the emergence of converted wide receiver L.A. Reed on the other side. Reed has been hobbled by an ankle injury, leaving LaRon Moore and Brent Nickerson as the likely contenders for playing time. They need a consistent player at the position before Big 12 play begins.

4. Is T Rylan Reed healthy enough to contribute in most situations?

Reed was one of the offensive line's most consistent players last season before breaking his ankle in the Gator Bowl. He set weight-lifting marks before training camp and supposedly is ready to return to the lineup. But coaches still will be holding their breaths until he performs in game situations against top pass rushers.

5. Who emerges as Tech's kicker?

Alex Trlica was one of the Red Raiders' most underrated weapons over the last several years, tying one bowl game with a clutch kick and winning the Gator Bowl last season with another. Freshman Donnie Carona and senior Cory Fowler have been hooked up in a tight battle throughout fall camp. Whoever emerges will be tested to match Trlica's accuracy and his ability in tight situations.