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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 103: Rice

Who, who, who, who will step up to help Rice improve upon last season's disaster?

It’s one thing to be awful on defense. Not a good thing, but as Rice illustrated in 2008 – when it went 10-3, the program’s lone 10-win season since 1950 – such defensive deficiencies can be offset by a potent offense. So what happens when you combine a bottom-five defense with a bottom-five offense? You get the Rice Owls of 2009, who made a distinct claim for being the worst team in the history of a program accustomed to dwelling along the outskirts of the F.B.S.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
Houston

Nickname
Owls

Returning starters
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 92

2009 record
(2-10, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 109

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Texas (at Reliant Stadium)
  • Sept. 11
    at North Texas
  • Sept. 18
    Northwestern
  • Sept. 25
    Baylor
  • Oct. 2
    S.M.U.
  • Oct. 9
    at UTEP
  • Oct. 16
    Houston
  • Oct. 23
    at U.C.F.
  • Nov. 6
    at Tulsa
  • Nov. 13
    at Tulane
  • Nov. 20
    E.C.U.
  • Nov. 27
    U.A.B.

Last year’s prediction

If all goes right (entering the U.C.F. game at 3-4, for instance), I imagine Rice will reach bowl eligibility. Despite getting burned a season ago, I don’t think Rice will be that good. I predict its losses on offense and a tough first two months will doom the Owls to a 5-7 finish in 2009, with a definite possibility of 4-8 if last year’s understudies don’t take to their new roles.

2009 recap

In a nutshell What happened in the space of one season? To be fair, Rice was hit hard by graduation, especially on offense. (Many programs would find it difficult to replace Chase Clement and Jarrett Dillard.) Yet the Owls returned enough talent on that side of the ball to avoid this stunning downturn: from a program-record 537 points in 2008 to 219 points, or 18.3 points per game. In that same vein, the defense allowed 517 points (43.1 points per game), a new school record and 84 more points than it allowed in one more game played in 2008. All of which raises the question: How did Rice win two games?

High point Rice won two consecutive games in November, beating Tulane by 28-20 and UTEP by 30-29. The Owls then celebrated their winning streak by giving up 73 points to Houston; even in the one-sided history of the rivalry (26-10 in Houston’s favor), that was the most points Rice had ever allowed against the Cougars.

Low point The 0-9 start, which saw Rice allow more than 38 points per game and only once – against S.M.U. – hang within 17 points. Even lowly Vanderbilt, which slummed through a 2-10 finish, had a day for the averages against the lowly Owls; the Commodores dropped 36 points against Rice, the most it scored against an F.B.S. opponent all season.

Tidbit Rice has gone 284 games without returning a kickoff for a touchdown, the longest such streak in the country. How long is 284 games? Try 26 years: the last time Rice scored via a kick return was on Nov. 17, 1984. The Owls have also gone the longest without scoring a touchdown via a punt return: 141 games, or since Nov. 8, 1997. If last season is any indication, sophomore Shane Turner will put an end to both streaks before his career is done.

Tidbit (UTEP edition) Last season’s victory over UTEP gave Rice four straight over the Miners. The Owls had not won four consecutive games over an opponent since 1996, when wins over T.C.U. and Tulsa gave them four straight victories against each opponent.

Tidbit (underage edition) Rice’s final two-deep featured 14 freshmen or sophomores, tying Louisiana Tech for the then-youngest depth chart in the country. For the year, the Owls featured 27 first- or second-year players on their two-deep, the fifth-most of any team in the country. The most? Texas A&M, with 31.

Former players in the N.F.L.

3 TE James Casey (Houston Texans), WR Jarett Dillard (Jacksonville Jaguars), LS Ryan Pontbriand (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

Best actors from Houston
1. Dennis Quaid.
2. Patrick Swayze.
3. Renee Zellwegger.
4. Randy Quaid.
5. Shelley Duvall.

Coaching

David Bailiff (Texas State ’81), 15-22 after three seasons at Rice. Bailiff took over the program shortly after his predecessor, Todd Graham, left the program for the same position at Tulsa. Graham’s quick and unexpected decision to leave Rice — it came two days after he had signed a contract extension through 2012 — may at least be partly to blame for Rice’s 3-9 finish in Bailiff’s first season, though injuries and an abysmal defense are the more likely culprits. Any questions about Bailiff’s ability to win at Rice were answered a10-3 2008 campaign, in which the team tied Minnesota for the largest single-season turnaround for the F.B.S. Though Bailiff is a defensive coach, the 2008 Rice offense set a number of individual, university and conference records. For his team’s strong play, Bailiff was named the Conference USA coach of the year. However, Rice’s eight-game slide back to 2-10 last fall raises an interesting question: Was Bailiff only able to win due to the players he inherited from the previous regime, most notably his dynamic quarterback and receiver combination? Before taking over at Rice, Bailiff spent three seasons as the head coach at Texas State (2004-6), where he compiled a 21-15 mark. In 2005, Texas State finished 11-3 and advanced to the national Division I-AA semifinals. This three-year stretch marked Bailiff’s third stint at his alma mater, joining his term as the defensive line coach (1988-92) and the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator (1997-2000). His F.B.S. assistant experience includes six years as the defensive line coach at New Mexico (1992-97) and three seasons at T.C.U. (2001-3). The Horned Frogs, 21-4 from 2002-3, were the 2002 Conference USA champions. While Bailiff deserves praise for his coaching job in his second season at Rice, his team’s woeful 2009 will force him into proving which season was the exception to the rule, and not the norm.

Would the phrase "ball security" work better on the back of Rice's shorts, or the front? (Photo courtesy of Ricefootball.net.)

Players to watch

It’s the day Rice fans have been waiting for since early in 2009: Sam McGuffie, the wildly talented former Michigan running back, will make his debut for the Owls this September. He is the type of home-run threat this team lacked a year ago. Wisely, Rice will use McGuffie out of a multitude of looks, whether out of the backfield as a traditional running back or in the slot. He gave fans a taste of his explosiveness late in the spring game, when he turned a short reception into a 65-yard gain. He’s built to excel in this wide-open spread attack.

McGuffie’s eligibility has overshadowed the presence of fellow sophomore Charles Ross, who last fall became the first freshman running back in 20 years to lead the Owls in rushing. The freshman all-Conference USA pick finished the year with 491 yards and a team-best 11 scores, the latter total ranking fifth among all rookie players in the country. At 6’0, 230 pounds, Ross will give the Owls a big-bodied back to team with the more elusive McGuffie. No other team in the conference has a better young one-two punch out of the backfield. Let’s see if Bailiff and his staff can get each significant touches.

The Owls lost leading receiver Toren Dixon, who posted 60 receptions for 660 yards a year ago, as well as top targets Taylor Wardlow and Jeramy Goodson. The team’s leading returning pass-catcher is senior Patrick Randolph, who finished second to Dixon in receptions (39), yards (356) and touchdowns (4) in 2009. Senior Corbin Smiter is looking to rebound from a lost 2009 season, when injuries forced him to take a medical redshirt. When healthy, Smiter can produce: in 2008, he posted 30 grabs for 487 yards and 3 touchdowns. Also in the mix for a starting role is Taylor Dupree, whose 17 catches ranked fourth on the team. A previously unproven receiver — at least one, if not more — must step up, with sophomore Michael Patterson, juniors Roddy Maginot and Randy Kitchens and freshman Klein Kubiak making the push for added playing time.

Great news up front: Rice returns every offensive lineman who started at least one game in 2009. Not many other programs in the F.B.S. can make a similar claim; none so far on the Countdown, at least. Senior left tackle Scott Mitchell, a second-team all-conference pick a year ago, is the best of the bunch. He’s also the most experienced, having started every game on the blindside since being inserted into the lineup seven games into his true freshman season. Joining him on the all-conference team were guards Jake Hicks and Davon Allen, each whom earned honorable mention honors. Keshawn Carrington returns at center, Tyler Parrish at right tackle, giving the Owls a solid offensive line, at least on paper.

Rice was decimated by injuries in 2009, with the defense especially feeling the pinch as maladies tested depth from the front four through the secondary. No group was hurt worse than the Rice linebackers, with seven players starting at least one game. Two of those starters — Robert Calhoun and Terrance Calhoun — were lost to graduation, though the pain of their loss is alleviated by the experience gained by some of last season’s understudies. One such players was sophomore Trey Briggs, who earned four starts as a true freshman. He ended the year with 25 tackles and a sack, though he would have improved on those numbers if he hadn’t also been lost to injury for the final two games of the year. Briggs will figure heavily into the mix at linebacker in 2010, as will seniors Justin Hill (43 tackles) and Willie Garley (31 tackles). Junior Matt Nordstrom and Ronnie Lillard will also see their roles increased.

The defensive line is led by end Cheta Ozougwu and nose tackle Scott Solomon, who last fall combined for 124 tackles (21 for loss) and 11 sacks; those numbers were the most by a defensive line tandem in the conference. Solomon’s fine junior season saw him post 63 stops (10.5 for loss) and 6.5 sacks off the nose, landing him in the program’s top 10 in the following categories: career sacks (15.5, fourth), single-season sacks and career tackles for loss (30.5, ninth). Additional depth on the interior of the Rice line will come from sophomore Alex Lowery and junior Michael Smith, a pair that combined for 13 starts in 2009. Ozougwu’s breakout year saw him set new career highs across the board. He was especially strong down the stretch, accounting for 39 tackles and 4 sacks over the second half of the season.

It’s rarely a good thing when a defensive back leads your team in tackles — especially by such a wide margin — but it’s difficult not to acknowledge the season safety Travis Bradshaw had in 2009. The junior posted a team-best 121 stops — the second-place finisher had 63 — the fourth-most in the conference and the eighth-best single-season total in school history. Ninety of those tackles were of the solo variety, giving him an F.B.S.-best seven and a half unassisted tackles per game. Talk about a last line of defense. In a perfect world, Bradshaw would see far less action in the running game; however, it’s still a comforting feeling to know he is there when needed. There’s plenty of depth at safety, with Rice returning past starters Max Anyiam, Chris Jones and Xavier Webb. Jones made nine starts last fall, adding 37 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries.

See that above picture, which shows Rice players sporting shorts with the phrase “ball security” emblazoned along the derriere? Bailiff should have printed an extra pair of shorts specifically for his secondary, urging his cornerbacks to “force turnovers.” Rice intercepted only six passes a year ago, one of the worst totals in the nation, while allowing 273.4 yards per game and 28 touchdowns. Not good. There’s no real reason to think this coming season will be any different, though the Owls do return a handful of players with starting experience. Junior Chris Jammer made nine starts last fall; sophomores Phillip Gaines and Kevin Gaddis made six and four starts, respectively; and junior Jarrett Ben made four starts, adding a team-best two interceptions. Rice can only hope the added year of experience will lead to an improved performance from its cornerbacks.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback With all of its returning talent, Rice entered spring ball with a number of positions already spoken for. Not to say that Bailiff did not breed competition throughout the depth chart, as any coach would do on the heels of a 2-10 finish. However, as noted above, look for most of last season’s prime contributors to remain in the starting lineup. One spot that has become open to debate — somewhat surprisingly, at least to me — was quarterback, where Rice returned an incumbent starter in junior Nick Fanuzzi. The former Alabama transfer might not have duplicated the numbers of Chase Clement, his predecessor, though he did become the second quarterback in school history (joining Clement) to complete better than 60 percent of his attempts. However, an undisclosed injury prevented Fanuzzi from taking part in Rice’s recent spring game, granting an opportunity to his two challengers: Taylor Cook, a former transfer from Miami (Fla.), and redshirt freshman Taylor McHargue. Both played extremely well during that spring game, with Cook completing 12 of 18 attempts for 111 yards and a score, and McHargue completing 8 of his 11 tries for 126 yards and 3 touchdowns. At the end of last season — and prior to the beginning of the spring — I would have felt secure predicting Fanuzzi to again be the man under center for the Owls. Now, after Cook and McHargue impressed, Fanuzzi will have a fight on his hands.

Game(s) to watch

Few are predicting Rice to claim the West division crown, so games against Houston and S.M.U. will have little impact beyond determining how close Rice gets to bowl eligibility. The non-conference slate is difficult, but home games against Northwestern and Baylor present the Owls will the opportunity for an upset.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Rice returns a substantial amount of talent off last year’s team, making a bounce-back season for Bailiff and the Owls a distinct possibility. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rice parlay that experience into a bowl run, though a 10-win season — like what occurred in 2008 — would be quite the surprise. If nothing else, the schedule will prevent even a rejuvenated team from making a run at anything better than a seven-win finish; Rice opens with three of its first four against B.C.S. conference opposition, including a season-opening affair against Texas. Continuing with this tough schedule, Rice faces only a pair of teams to have won less than five games a year ago: North Texas and Tulane. Both should be wins, allowing Rice to — at worst — match last season’s win total. Yet I don’t believe the schedule will allow much more of an improvement: even though the Owls have only a pair of true road games prior to Oct. 23, it will be tough for the team to start better than 2-5. I waffled over Rice, truly believing the Owls capable of a rapid turnaround, but I feel more secure predicting a slight improvement, nothing better than a fourth-place finish in Conference USA’s West division. The team remains young enough to think that 2011 will see the Owls compete for a division crown, if not challenge for the conference championship.

Dream season Another unexpected season from Bailiff and the Owls: 9-3, 6-2 in conference play.

Nightmare season I’m not sure if things can get worse after last season, but another two-win season – with the inefficiency Rice played with on both sides of the ball in 2009 – would raise significant questions about the future of the program under Bailiff.

In case you were wondering

Where do Rice fans congregate? The Parliament is your top option. Don’t let the non-stop baseball chatter stop you. For Rice recruiting news, check out Owl Digest. You can find additional coverage at the Web site of the Houston Chronicle. You should stop by RiceFootball.net, one of the oldest college football Web sites on the Internet.

Up Next

Who is No. 102? Prior to 1963, our next program had the same nickname as four other programs in the F.B.S., including one already previewed on the Countdown. You guys have had it way too easy so far.

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Comments

  1. Mr. Myerberg…say, the site Rice Football Webletter, http://www.ricefootball.net, you know, the place where you cadged the photo we took of the Rice players in their workout shorts saying “ball security” on the back — without giving any attribution???

    Just to let you know that we are the longest-extant independent Division 1A football-only site on the web, having published thousands of words and photos, and hundreds of audios and videos, annually since 1998. We average in excess of 10,000 unique index page views per day during the season, and well over a million hits a year — this, with an audience base consisting of the smallest student/alumni population in Division 1A.

    It is true that practically nobody “hangs out” at our site. A couple thousand Rice fans practically LIVE at our site for three, four months out of the year, but nobody really hangs out there; I mean, we don’t serve coffee or anything…

  2. Steve Lattimer says:

    Dear Paul T. Hlavinka,

    Four questions:

    1) Are you really lame enough to be policing pictures of Rice Football players all over the internet?

    2) Do you think anyone on this site cares how many index page views you get on a daily basis?

    3) Do you still live in your mom’s basement?

    4) Would you like to buy a vowel for your last name?

    That is all.

    SL

  3. NTXCoog says:

    The best part of your arbitrary Top 5 list today? 2 of the actors (the Quaid brothers) attended crosstown rival the University of Houston.

    I hope we don’t see Rice people on the UH top 5 list. ;-)

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