Texas Tech’s defense in recent years has been a punch line.

Tech’s defense? What defense?

No matter how many points the Red Raiders put up – and they could score with the best of college football – it figured that the defense would find a way to surrender even more points. In fact, four times in the last two seasons alone Texas Tech scored 50 points … and still lost those games.

Last season, they allowed 43.5 points and 554.3 yards per game, ranking last nationally in both categories. This season, the thinking went, the porous unit may cost coach Kliff Kingsbury his job by season’s end.

What has occurred, so far, qualifies as one of the bigger surprises in the country, not just in the Big 12. Texas Tech is an unlikely 3-0 and not because it has beat up on hapless non-conference opponents. The Red Raiders held off Arizona State at home and earned a surprising victory – spearheaded by their defense – at Houston, snapping the Cougars’ 16-game home win streak.

Now comes a stiffer test – perhaps the most daunting defensive test in the league. Here comes a prolific Oklahoma State offense that figures to be salty after looking flummoxed in Saturday’s home loss to TCU.

“On any given day,” Kingsbury said, “they can score 70 on you.”

If third-year Tech defensive coordinator David Gibbs can hold Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph and one of the nation’s best wide receiving corps to under 50, the Red Raiders will have a chance to establish themselves as a contender – yes, a contender – in the Big 12.

A sold out crowd at Jones AT&T Stadium will be expecting to see an improved defense. As will Oklahoma State, which knows this unit is different. It is led by linebacker Dakota Allen, who earned league defensive player of the week honors after making 12 tackles and intercepting a pass in the Houston victory.

"They're bringing some edge rushers and they have a couple of guys that rush on the edge pretty well,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “They're playing better in my opinion, and I think they would like to pressure you more than what they might have in the past."

In a twist, much of Tech’s identity this season may revolve around its defense.

“That’s what we’ve been searching for,” Kingsbury said, “and that’s why I’ve been so excited to have coach Gibbs for his third year trying to have some of that consistency, develop a culture, develop an identity.

“We have some players that have been in our system now and been with him going on three years. You can see that they are understanding what he’s about, they are understanding the way we practice and scheme and hopefully that continues to pay off.”

As a unit, the defense may not be as stout against the run as Texas’ defense, or as impressive overall as TCU’s or Oklahoma’s or Kansas State’s. Where the Red Raiders excel is in turnover margin, where they rank second nationally. They forced five turnovers in the Houston victory.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the way the defense is taking the ball away,” Kingsbury said. “That’s the key to our conference. You look at the teams that have won the league the last few years and they are way up in turnover margin. That’s where are trying to get to give ourselves a chance in every game in the Big 12.”

Oklahoma State has turned the ball over eight times this season. The Cowboys want to continue to play to their strengths, speeding up the tempo. But they know there will be more resistance than usual Saturday night in Lubbock.

Mike Yurcich, Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator, said the difference he sees is that the Red Raiders have simplified things, allowing players to “play with less hesitation. They are just flying around right now. They are a much improved defense.”

Just how improved will be determined Saturday night.

Eric Prisbell covers the Big 12 for CNHI Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @EricPrisbell and email him at eprisbell@cnhi.com.

This Week's Circulars