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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. 111: Rice

Since the start of the 2003 season, Rice has allowed, on average, 36.7 points per game. So it’s not too surprising to find that the Owls are 39-69 over the last nine years; what’s surprising is that Rice has made two bowl trips over the last nine years. Rice has allowed at least 40 points in a game 44 times since 2003: eight times in 2007, when the defense allowed 515 points, and another seven times in 2009, when the defense allowed 517 points. The Owls have scored 40 or more points in 24 of their 39 wins since 2003, including seven such victories in 2008, when the program scored more points than it allowed for the only time since 1997. The goal of football is to score more points than your opponent over the span of 60 minutes; for Rice, that quest is waylaid every fall by a defense that is reaching a historical level of ineptitude.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
Houston

Nickname
Owls

Returning starters
10 (5 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 105

2011 record
(4-8, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 96

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    U.C.L.A.
  • Sept. 8
    at Kansas
  • Sept. 15
    at Louisiana Tech
  • Sept. 22
    Marshall
  • Sept. 29
    Houston
  • Oct. 6
    at Memphis
  • Oct. 13
    U.T.S.A.
  • Oct. 20
    at Tulsa
  • Oct. 27
    Southern Miss.
  • Nov. 3
    at Tulane
  • Nov. 17
    S.M.U.
  • Nov. 24
    at UTEP

Last year’s prediction

Again, the defense is a major question mark — going on seven years running now, sadly. 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Another season with eight or more losses, the program’s third straight since notching 10 wins in 2008. The defense allowed 62 fewer points, believe it or not, moving up from 114th in the F.B.S. to 98th. The offense scored 64 fewer points, however, offsetting the subtle strides taken on the other side of the ball. But what’s 62 points in the big picture? For Rice, a small improvement on defense was enough to lose only four games by 17 or more points, down from six such losses in 2010 and nine in 2009. It was also enough to lead David Bailiff to make major changes on his defensive staff, though not too major: Chuck Driesbach is out as coordinator, replaced by… last season’s cornerbacks coach. The Owls allowed eight teams to throw for at least 237 yards last fall, which makes me wonder: Wouldn’t a new voice have been a better idea?

High point Rice played its most complete game of the season against Purdue. The defense played well in the 24-22 win, but the real story was the play on special teams: Rice blocked Carson Wiggs’ potential game-winning field goal as time expired to seal the victory. Purdue recovered from the disappointing loss, earning a bowl berth, but Rice went on to win only three more games the rest of the way.

Low point Rice dominated Houston for nearly 15 minutes — for 14 minutes and 46 seconds, to be exact. Ahead by 17-7 lead late in the first quarter of its rain-soaked date with the Cougars, Rice would be outscored, 66-20, over the game’s final 45 minutes and 14 seconds. Rice will go down as the answer to a question in a college football-themed game of Trivial Pursuit: Against which team did Case Keenum set the F.B.S. record for career touchdown passes?

Tidbit Rice had two scoring plays of 95-plus yards last fall. The longest was a 97-yard touchdown scamper against Houston by running back Tyler Smith, who was one of 16 offensive skill players players in the F.B.S. with a 90-yard play in 2011. On defense, safety Xavier Webb scored on a 96-yard fumble return against Southern Mississippi.

Tidbit (sacks edition) The Owls have finished no higher than 73rd nationally in sacks in each of the last five seasons. That high-water mark, 73rd, came back in 2008, when Rice tied B.Y.U., Marshall, UTEP and North Carolina with 22 sacks. Rice has posted 95.5 sacks as a team since 2007; Florida State has 89 sacks over the last two years.

Tidbit (non-conference edition) Last fall, Rice was the only team in the F.B.S. to play four B.C.S. conference teams during non-conference play. The Owls went 1-3 in these games, beating Purdue but losing to Texas, Northwestern and Baylor by a combined score of 118-46. Rice will play another two B.C.S. conference programs to open the year — U.C.L.A. and Kansas — but also play two teams from the WAC in Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 FB James Casey (Houston), WR Jarett Dillard (Jacksonville), LS Ryan Pontbriand (San Francisco), S Andrew Sendejo (Minnesota), DE Scott Solomon (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

Houston Texans’ 2012 draft picks
1. DE Whitney Mercilus (1st round, 26th overall).
2. DE Jared Crick (4th round, 136th overall).
3. WR Keshawn Martin (4th round, 121st overall).
4. C Ben Jones (4th round, 99th overall).
5. WR DeVier Posey (3rd round, 68th overall).

Coaching

David Bailiff (Texas State ’81), 23-38 after five 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. Lingering questions about Bailiff’s ability to win at Rice were answered during a 10-3 2008 campaign, in which the team tied Minnesota for the largest single-season turnaround in the country. 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 the four-win finish in each of the last two seasons 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. 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 three seasons gives him one of the hottest seats in the country.

Tidbit (coaching edition) After five seasons of diminishing results — and it’s not like Rice started with an Alabama-like defense — Bailiff had no choice but to dismiss defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach, an original member of his staff. One would think, based on the way Rice has played defense for the better part of a decade, that Bailiff would have looked outside the program to find Driesbach’s successor. Instead, Rice promoted cornerbacks coach Chris Thurmond, who joined the Owls in 2011 after three seasons at Kentucky. Rice also hired former Baylor assistant Larry Hoeser as safeties coach, where he’ll take some work off of Thurmond’s plate, and made former graduate assistant Michael Slater the full-time defensive line coach.

Players to watch

In all likelihood, Taylor McHargue will be Rice’s starting quarterback. That sentence doesn’t carry the same ring as it did at this time a year ago, when McHargue put together a very strong spring to claim the starting job away from then-senior Nick Fanuzzi. McHargue started last season with three solid starts — 19 of 29 for 230 yards and 2 scores in the win over Purdue, for example — but slowly lost every ounce of his confidence over the following four games, beginning with a loss to Southern Mississippi. After throwing two picks in four attempts against Tulsa, McHargue dropped out of Rice’s plans. Fanuzzi in, McHargue out.

So McHargue doesn’t only need to improve as an actual quarterback; while blessed with some ability as a passer, McHargue has never given Rice consistent play under center. He also needs to boost his own self-confidence, which went from sky-high last August to rock-bottom by the end of October. While Bailiff has said that McHargue holds the edge at quarterback, that his season took such a rapid turn for the worse last fall has kept freshman Driphus Jackson in the competition. If there’s one thing Jackson has over McHargue it’s athletic ability, which might be an appealing quality for an offense that could use more explosiveness in the running game.

After a great start to his career at Rice, former Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie’s junior season was stymied by injuries. He played hurt through the first six games of last fall, rushing for a season-high 70 yards against Marshall, but injured his ankle a week later against Tulsa, causing him to miss the final five games of the year. His move to the sidelines gave Turner Peterson (485 yards, 5 touchdowns) more looks in the running game; when given the opportunity, Peterson showed an ability to shoulder the load as Tyler Smith’s backup. That allowed Rice to move McGuffie to receiver during the spring, where he’s currently listed as a starter in the slot. McGuffie is a very intriguing target in the passing game.

Even if he moves back running back, whether due to injuries or otherwise, McGuffie will play a major role in the passing game — as he was in 2010, when he led the Owls with 39 receptions. McGuffie would give the Owls three very strong targets in the intermediate passing game, joining Luke Wilson (29 receptions for 313 yards) and Vance McDonald (44 receptions for 541 yards and 5 scores, all team highs). Wilson’s a tremendous athlete, though perhaps Rice wishes he wasn’t quite so athletic: Wilson will spend the summer working in the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league system, though it’s expected that he’ll be back for camp in August.

What Rice really needs is a receiver capable of spreading the field. With nice intermediate targets in place, McHargue — or Jackson — could use a full season from Jordan Taylor, a tall, promising sophomore who came on strong over the final four games of last season. But at 6’5, is Taylor enough of a burner to stretch the field? Look for the Owls to audition several receivers to play alongside Taylor, such as Mario Hull (17 receptions for 181 yards), Donte Moore, Lovett Gibson and J.J. Walker. Rice has big-bodied receivers, but the Owls need a play-maker out wide. That may be McGuffie, but I wonder how quickly he can acclimate himself to this new role.

Hopefully, Thurmond’s defense will get pressure on the quarterback. And while we’re hoping, here’s praying that Thurmond can find a way to replace defensive end Scott Solomon and linebacker Justin Allen, two lost starters who combined for more than half of Rice’s sacks and more than a third of its tackles for loss a season ago. The Owls do bring back three starters in the secondary, but this defense will only improve if it can disrupt the opposition on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Hope and pray, but don’t hold your breath.

With Solomon and Allen gone, the leadership mantle — both on the field and off — passes to junior strong side linebacker Cameron Nwosu (team-leading 108 tackles). Forget about the lack of height: Nwosu is a player, pure and simple, and a nice fit on the strong side in Rice’s 4-2-5 system. Replacing Allen’s production is an issue, as you’d expect, and the Owls don’t have much in the way of experience waiting in the wings. The opportunity is there for former L.S.U. transfer Kyle Prater, an expert on special teams, to step into a major role. Prater is competing with another handful of holdovers, like James Radcliffe, Michael Kuntzler, Trey Briggs and Nick Elder, for the chance to run alongside Nwosu. Briggs missed most of last season with an injury, but he has past starting experience.

The Owls will play three linebackers on occasion: Thurmond said during the spring that his defense will present a three-linemen look in certain packages. This is a nice idea in theory, especially given that the Owls have depth concerns up front, but does Thurmond have enough talent at linebacker to make a 3-3-5 system work? Keep in mind the fact that Rice will only use the three-man front on occasion, but the Owls do have a numbers issue all along the front seven.

End Jared Williams (35 tackles, 6.0 for loss) is the lone returning starter on the defensive line. Rice is going to rely heavily on two juniors, end Dylan Klare (19 tackles) and tackle Hosam Shahin (19 tackles, 2.5 for loss), as Thurmond looks to replace three lost starters. The Owls also get back end Cody Bauer, a vital member of the rotation in 2010 who missed all of last season with a knee injury.

One reason why Thurmond is entertaining the idea of a three-linemen front is the dearth of proven quantities at tackle, where Shanin and Jamael Thomas stand as the only tackles with adequate experience heading into the fall. Size is another issue: Shanin and redshirt freshman Christian Covington — another Canadian prospect — are the only linemen listed at more than 275 pounds. Even if Thurmond offsets some interior issues by putting an extra linebacker on the field, there’s no avoiding the fact that Rice is not going to be able to replace Solomon’s ability to get to the quarterback; his departure could cripple this defense.

As the cornerbacks coach, Thurmond helped oversee a pass defense that ranked 112th nationally in yards allowed per game despite finishing 52nd nationally in pass attempts against. What does this mean? That Rice was awful against the pass. To be more exact, if Rice had faced the same number of attempts as Oklahoma State, which led the country with 541 attempts against, it would have allowed about 379 passing yards per game, which would have ranked last in the F.B.S. by almost 80 yards per game.

Thurmond will continue to work with the cornerbacks, where he’ll get a full season out of senior Phillip Gaines, who missed the final eight games of last season due to injury. The silver lining to Gaines’ injury woes was the play of sophomore Bryce Callahan; while he had his rookie moments — more than one, to be honest — Callahan did intercept a team-best six passes, a total that also led all F.B.S. freshmen. If Gaines ends up spending some time at safety, the Owls could team Callahan with another sophomore, Malcolm Hill, who made nine tackles in a reserve role last fall.

Three returning safeties made at least one start a year ago: Paul Porras (91 tackles, 5.0 for loss), Corey Frazier (46 tackles) and Tanner Leland (42 tackles). Porras and Frazier started the season at strong safety and rover, respectively, but alternated spots for the year’s final six games. The Owls also have promising sophomore Jaylon Finner, a strong contributor on special teams as a rookie who might be ready to move into a bigger role on defense.

Because this defensive section is getting out of hand, let’s sum things up as neatly as possible. Come September, Williams and Klare will start at end. Shahin and Covington are the likely starters inside. Nwosu is on the strong side, of course, while Prater holds the edge on the weak side. Leland, Frazier and Porras are at safety. Callahan and Gaines, if Rice keeps the latter at his old position, will be at cornerback. I could have saved myself a lot of words by just writing this. Why don’t I just list the starters in one paragraph instead of lollygagging around for paragraphs after paragraphs? I have no idea. I should take this idea under consideration.

Back to the lollygagging. It’s difficult to state just how vital punter Kyle Martens was to Rice last fall: more often than I can count, Martens bailed out a decidedly average offense by unleashing booming punt after booming punt. His departure stings, though his replacement, junior Chris Boswell, had a nice spring game. Boswell, who handled kickoffs for Rice last fall, will be the Owls’ punter and kicker.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line The offensive line may be the youngest in Conference USA, if not one of the youngest in the entire country. With six linemen gone — four with starting experience — the Owls are turning towards sophomore right guard Drew Carroll, the lone returning starter, as the offensive front’s new linchpin. One of Carroll’s issues is a concern you see nearly across the board: Carroll needs to continue putting in work in the weight room. Rice has some promising underclassmen linemen, but as a group, the Owls lack prototypical size.

The best position battle is taking place at right tackle, where freshmen Caleb Williams and Matt Wofford battled during the spring. For now, Williams has a slight leg up over Wofford, though Rice probably won’t make a final decision until August. The line has gotten a nice boost from JUCO transfer Nate Richards, who enrolled in time for spring ball and has already put a stranglehold on the center position. With Carroll locked in at right guard, Ian Gray is getting a look at left guard and Jon Hodde, a former walk-on, first crack at left tackle. Despite his humble arrival at Rice, Hodde does have nice length; at 6’7, perhaps he’s the blind side protector the Owls need.

Game(s) to watch

The game that stands out at first glance is Marshall, which is sandwiched around four tough games: U.C.L.A., Kansas on the road, Louisiana Tech on the road and Houston. While the season opens with a bang, Rice does get a nice stretch of winnable games over the second half of the year. Over a five-game period from October to November, the Owls get Memphis, Texas-San Antonio and Tulane.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell What reason do we have at our disposal to think that Rice is capable of getting out of its three-year rut? It’s certainly not because the offense is ready to break out — as it did in 2008, when the program made its tremendous run to double-digit wins. Quarterback play is a major concern, but it’s only one issue the Owls face as they head into the summer. The offensive line looks at least one full season away from reaching its potential, though adding a JUCO transfer like Richards goes a long way towards sewing up the holes left by four lost starters. Moving McGuffie to receiver might pay dividends, but if he stands as the Owls’ lone big-play threat, I worry that McHargue or Jackson won’t have enough weapons to keep opposing defensive backs honest. And let’s not ignore the elephant in the room: once again, the defense remains Rice’s biggest concern. What Rice does have in its favor is an easier schedule both in and out of Conference USA play. That should lead to another four-win season, but when at least half of those wins are coming from a group consisting of Memphis, Texas-San Antonio, Tulane and UTEP, that’s not a season worth writing home about. Overall, I get the impression that Rice is in need of a coaching overhaul.

Dream season The defense makes a slight improvement, but as in the recent past, Rice makes a bowl run thanks to a prolific offensive attack. The Owls sweep the also-rans on the schedule and net wins over Louisiana Tech, Houston and S.M.U. to finish 8-4.

Nightmare season Going with a familiar face backfires on Bailiff, as Thurmond’s defense finishes in the bottom five nationally in all major categories. This leads Rice to finish 2-10, which in turn leads the university to make a coaching change.

In case you were wondering

Where do Rice fans congregate? I’m convinced that 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.

Rice’s all-name nominee QB Driphus Jackson.

Word Count

Through 14 teams 45,456.

Up Next

Who is No. 110? One of the two student newspapers at tomorrow’s university shares its name with a publication that published its first edition on the same day — though not the same year — that the Royal Australian Air Force was formed.

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Comments

  1. Hokieshibe says:

    Buffalo is next?

    With the student newspaper The Spectrum, sharing it’s name with the Toledo, OH newspaper, first published on March 31st, 1993…

  2. delawaresinglewing says:

    Driphus Jackson should also be nominated to the “My Mother Couldn’t Spell” team. (If he cheats on his wife would the event be called the “Driphus Affair”?)

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