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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. 105: Rice

Rice may very well have the smartest student body in the F.B.S., so the onus is on these rising stars to create a brand-new defense capable of getting stops in a Conference USA laden with offensive potency. As John F. Kennedy so dared the country at large to put a man on the moon during a 1962 speech on the university’s campus, so does the challenge thus fall onto Rice’s finest: begin the planning, create the blueprints, plug your statistical analysis into the school’s largest, most potent computer models. Make a defense. Put an Owl defender on the all-conference team. I know it’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that you must be willing to accept, one that you must be unwilling to postpone, and one that must be tackled if Rice intends to win.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
Houston

Nickname
Owls

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 103

2010 record
(4-8, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 101

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Texas
  • Sept. 10
    Purdue
  • Sept. 24
    at Baylor
  • Oct. 1
    at Southern Miss.
  • Oct. 8
    Memphis
  • Oct. 15
    at Marshall
  • Oct. 22
    Tulsa
  • Oct. 27
    at Houston
  • Nov. 5
    UTEP
  • Nov. 12
    at Northwestern
  • Nov. 19
    Tulane
  • Nov. 26
    at S.M.U.

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell We’ve seen this story before. Good enough to win games offensively, Rice was hamstrung by a defense that didn’t just fail to get stops — the Owls failed in nearly every facet defensively, holding only one of 12 opponents to less than 30 points. That’s the number of the year for Rice: 30. You almost wouldn’t think it was possible, then you’d watch this defense and understand completely. And it’s officially a trend, by the way, as Rice has allowed at least 432 points in each of the last six seasons. At least the defense improved, though not by much. The Owls allowed about five points less per game, which is a nice improvement but really just a drop in the bucket. And that’s a bit of a shame, as while the offense came nowhere near duplicating its breakout numbers in 2008, the unit as a whole was much, much better. One day, the Rice offense and defense might meet in the middle. For now, the offense carries the defense, as it has for years and years.

High point A 34-31 win over Houston. It’s a heated rivalry, though one that draws little attention outside of the region. The Cougars hold the all-time edge in the series, but the Owls have won two of three against their crosstown rivals. That win was the first of three in a six-game span to end the season.

Low point Defensive failures, again and again. A whopping 54 points allowed at Tulane, which is even worse than it sounds. Tulsa dropped 64, but that’s slightly more understandable.

Tidbit Rice has gone 296 games without returning a kickoff for a touchdown, the longest such streak in the country. How long is 296 games? Try 27 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: 153 games, or since Nov. 8, 1997.

Tidbit (draft edition) Rice came very close to a draft first, at least to the best of my knowledge. The Owls had the final player taken in April’s N.F.L. draft: Cheta Ozougwu went to the Texans, ending the 2011 festivities. A week later, the Owls nearly had the first player taken in the C.F.L. draft: Scott Mitchell, a four-year starter, went second overall to the Edmonton Eskimos. So Rice nearly had players come off the board in back-to-back picks, albeit more than a week apart.

Tidbit (November edition) It’s a pity Rice struggles early, as the Owls have been very strong in November since 2006. Since that fall, Todd Graham’s one and only year in charge, the Owls have gone a combined 15-7 from November on, including a perfect 5-0 mark in 2008.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 TE James Casey (Houston), WR Jarrett Dillard (Jacksonville), DE Cheta Ozougwu (Houston), LS Ryan Pontbriand (Cleveland), S Andrew Sendejo (Dallas).

Arbitrary top five list

Worst trades in Houston Astros history
1. Joe Morgan to Cincinnati, 1971.
2. Kenny Lofton to Cleveland, 1991.
3. Curt Schilling to Philadelphia, 1992.
4. Mike Cuellar to Baltimore, 1968.
5. Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley to San Diego, 1994.

Coaching

David Bailiff (Texas State ’81), 19-30 after four 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-minded 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 in 2009 and last fall’s four-win finish 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 play over the last two seasons will force him into proving which period was the exception to the rule, and not the norm.

Players to watch

It’s not that often that a ballyhooed transfer actually lives up to the hype, such as former Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie did for the Owls in 2010. Two years removed from his freshman season in Ann Arbor, McGuffie showed little rust; in fact, it seemed like the year off might have done him some good. Now a junior, McGuffie led Rice in rushing (883 yards) and receiving (39 catches for 384 yards), becoming one of only four players in the F.B.S. to post at least 800 yards rushing and 370 yards receiving on the season. So he was a good fit, thanks to his ability to make plays in both facets, and is a definite all-conference contender in 2011. The Owls also have a nice secondary option in sophomore Jeremy Eddington, who rushed for 100 yards twice over the team’s final three games. And there’s more: carries will be hard to come by, but Rice could also turn to Charles Ross, the resident big back, or Tyler Smith, both of whom can get it done on the ground. No group on this team has more depth.

With Taylor McHargue, without Taylor McHargue. The Owls were 2-0 with the then-freshman in the starting lineup last fall, 2-8 without, which should tell you all you need to know about Rice’s uncompetitive quarterback competition. It won’t be Nick Fanuzzi, though he’s a fine backup option; it will be McHargue under center, with the hope that his perfect starting record in 2010 stands as a harbinger of things to come. If nothing else, McHargue’s ability to avoid turnovers — thus far in his career — makes him a far more valuable option, and should ensure that if he’s healthy, free from any shoulder issues, he’s the starter. The small sample size has been impressive.

Perhaps having McHargue as the full-time starter will lead to more explosiveness in the passing game. The Owls have suffered a steep decline in passing productivity since 2008, when Chase Clement and Jarrett Dillard combined to set N.C.A.A. records. There are no Dillards in this receiver corps, unfortunately, as the group is more deep than explosive, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: look for McHargue to continue to spread the ball around, as the Owls did a year ago. Rice has two big-bodied options in Luke Wilson (33 catches for 425 yards) and Vance McDonald (28 for 396 and 8 scores), each of whom can present mismatches against smaller defensive backs. The group needs a big-play threat to really spread things out, however: maybe that guy will be Donte Moore, or sophomore Klein Kubiak, who earned significant time as a rookie.

Four starters are back along the offensive line, but the Owls will miss Scott Mitchell — the C.F.L. pick — at left tackle. His departure creates some shuffling up front, with all-conference left guard Jake Hicks the most logical choice to move into Mitchell’s open spot. Hicks has spent time at both tackle spots, so the learning curve will be very slight. He’ll bookend the line with senior Tyler Parrish. Another senior, Keshawn Carrington, lines up at center, and Rice could start Eric Ball at either guard spot; he made three starts at right guard, four starts at center and three starts at left guard last fall. If Ball starts at left guard, it would open up a position for mammoth redshirt freshman Ian Gray — he’s somewhere in the range of 8’6, 900 pounds, judging by photos — as the strong side guard.

The most valuable member of the defense might be the punter, even if Kyle Martens isn’t technically a member of the defense. He’s just a weapon, a long-legged boomer who ranked among the most prolific punters in the country in 2010. Rice needs every yard it can get for this defense, if only to make the opposition have to work just a little bit harder before the nearly inevitable touchdown.

Just because Rice goes with two linebackers doesn’t diminish the importance of the position. T.C.U. does the same, by and large, and the Horned Frogs rely on their linebackers for production against the run, the pass and in getting to the quarterback. The Owls should think the same way, which makes senior Justin Allen a vital factor in any improvement this defense hopes to make in 2011. A former transfer from Idaho, Allen stepped into the starting lineup for the final three games of last season, replacing an injured Trey Briggs. The pair returns in 2011, so there are your two starting linebackers. The Owls need more from both.

Scott Solomon is back after missing all of last season with a foot injury — suffered in the week leading up to the season opener — which is wonderful news for a defense starving for talent. Solomon was one of Conference USA’s best linemen in 2009, when he led all conference linemen with 63 tackles, and enters his final season within striking distance of the program record for sacks and tackles for loss. Beyond the numbers, Solomon’s a steadying presence up front. His versatility also increases his value, as Solomon has the athleticism to play end but the size to move inside if needed.

Two more seniors will dot the interior of the line: Michael Smith enters his third season in the starting lineup, and John Gioffre (30 tackles) was an honorable mention all-conference pick a year ago. The key to the line as a whole will be increasing a paltry pass rush, though Solomon will help in this regard. The Owls will need to replace end Kramer Lucio, who paced the team with four sacks, as well as the aforementioned Cheta Ozougwu.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary Rest assured that Rice will again rank among the nation’s worst teams defensively. This is nothing new, as noted, and should come as no surprise. The Owls might be able to stem the bleeding, however, if the secondary can put together just a slightly more competitive performance — not give up 34 touchdowns, for example, and make more than six interceptions, as was the case a year ago. The base defense features five defensive backs, one of whom — Corey Frazier (a team-leading 83 tackles) — plays a hybrid safety-linebacker position. It’s vital that Frazier not only make tackles but also makes plays, something he really didn’t do with regularity in 2010. In all, Rice’s safety situation is settled: Frazier will be joined by senior Travis Bradshaw (76 tackles, 2 interceptions) at free safety and some combination of Xavier Webb and Paul Porras at strong safety. The real question marks lie at cornerback, a lingering issue for this program even as the Owls return some experience at the position. Chris Jammer is a multiple-year starter; Phillips Gaines has also started in the past, though he has an off-field issue to address. The biggest story during the spring has been the play of redshirt freshman Bryce Callahan, a player Bailiff singled out on several occasions for his ability to create turnovers. If he retains that ability in the fall, there’s no way Rice can’t put Callahan into the starting lineup.

Game(s) to watch

Stand up and applaud Rice for having the fortitude to schedule four B.C.S. conference foes outside of Conference USA play. Our respect for the Owls should know no bounds. Unfortunately, the schedule will most likely leave Rice 0-4 in non-conference play, though the Owls could steal a win if Purdue hasn’t improved.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The defense will again prevent Rice from reaching bowl play, but at least the offense is around to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, the offense will have to be of the 2008 vintage to offset the defense, and it’s hard to see that happening. Not that there aren’t nice pieces on offense, on the other hand. McHargue is an intriguing sophomore, and if he can continue to limit his turnovers the offense will be in the position to make further improvement. McGuffie has lived up to the hype, and Rice has a number of options to help him carry the load in the running game. Four starters return up front, and the only real issue is whether Rice can locate a lead target at receiver, though the Owls have two nice options over the middle of the field. Again, the defense is a major question mark — going on seven years running now, sadly. Solomon’s return will help up front, but the lack of a pass rush is a tremendous issue. If the Owls could find a pass rush, perhaps the secondary wouldn’t fare so poorly against the more potent passing teams in Conference USA. As of today, however, the Owls lack the ability to get to the passer and to force turnovers, which will lead to long, extended, demoralizing scoring drives. In the best-case, the offense takes a big step forward, helping Rice merely outscore the opposition. The offense will be good but not quite that good, and a tough schedule certainly doesn’t help matters.

Dream season The offense exceeds the lofty expectations, returning to 2008 form to lead the Owls to a 9-3 finish.

Nightmare season The defense falls short of the slight expectations, dropping the Owls two games in the win column to 2-10.

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.

Word Count

Through 16 teams 41,875.

Up Next

Who is No. 104? Take care when making calls when visiting tomorrow’s university: if you don’t disable roaming, every call you make is subject to international calling rates.

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Comments

  1. Dave says:

    Rice may very well have the smartest student body in the F.B.S….

    ***************************

    Obviously this is a subjective topic, but for what it’s worth, going by 2010 75th percentile SAT scores, Rice is actually 3rd in the FBS, behind Duke and Stanford and ahead of Northwestern and Notre Dame. Rounding out the top 10 are Vandy, USC, Cal, UVA, and Boston College.

    http://www.stateuniversity.com/rank/sat_75pctl_rank.html

  2. Dave says:

    PS I imagine next up is Hawai’i…?

  3. Joel says:

    Maybe UTEP?

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    The 1962 speech given by JFK in the photo above is a classic – one of his best.

    At one point he asked ” Why go to the moon ? Why climb the highest mountain ? … Why does Rice play Texas ? [ at which point the Rice student body erupts in approval] We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

    A few weeks later an 0-3-1 Rice team tied an unbeaten and number one ranked Texas team 14-14.

    Paul: Thanks for posting this. It’s perhaps the greatest presidential speech of the 20th century. Re-read it when doing the silly introduction to the preview. Just amazing.

  5. Eksynyt says:

    Next has gotta be UTEP. El Paso has a lot of problems with certain providers randomly being switched to Mexican cell towers.

  6. wildcat6 says:

    Jimmy Wynn to the Dodgers for Claude Osteen in 1973 was also not a very good deal for the Astros, even though Wynn had a not-so-good year for them in ’73. He exploded in ’74 for LA, helping them to the pennant.

    Best Astro trade: Larry Andersen to the Red Sox for Jeff Bagwell in 1988.

    Paul: Second-best would be Glenn Davis to Baltimore for Curt Schilling, Pete Harnisch and Steve Finley in 1991. The Orioles thought they were one piece away from contending, and that Davis would be the next version of Frank Robinson. Oops.

  7. mymrbig says:

    Good overview of Rice. I watched most of Rice’s games in 2010 and disagree slightly on your assessment of the secondary. I thought the coverage skills displayed by the CB’s were actually decent. But the safeties were miserable at providing Rice CB’s with help over the top. Also, inexplicably, the defensive coaches had Rice CB’s playing 10 yards off the line for the first 9 games. So Rice got killed short because they had no press coverage and deep because the safeties were poor. The CB’s were beat some too, but really the safeties were a much bigger problem.

    It would be very helpful if a WR would step up as #1, but Rice can still pose matchup problems without a traditional #1 WR. McGuffie is obviously a great receving back who frequently is in the slot. Plus Rice has a trio of big dudes: Vance McDonald (6’5″, 255 lbs) is a former TE who moved to WR; Luke Wilson (6’5″, 255 lbs) established himself as a good receiving TE in 2010; and Taylor Cook (6’7″, 253 lbs) moved from QB to TE with good reports this spring. Lots of potential matchup problems even without a traditional WR threat.

  8. [...] Coming in at #105 is Rice (hence Owls in headline) who will be visiting Evanston in November in one of two games on the slate (along with FCS Eastern Illinois) that even the most jaded NU fan are earmarking as a “W”.  Then, at #103 is Indiana under former NU OC and Sooners OC Kevin Wilson.  We’re not falling for that one as we seemingly have become accustomed to an annual heart stopper cliff-hanging win against the Hoosiers.  I really don’t expect to see another opponent for a couple of weeks with Minnesota being the odds-on favorite to be next in line followed by Army which will likely be the start of a slew of teams 60s or better.  [...]

  9. [...] hard not to just point you to Pre-Snap Read’s analysis of Rice as he was and will be much more thorough than I am today. Paul ranked them 105 (of 120) this year [...]

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