The 19 returning starters, the five-game win streak, the softer conference schedule and the experience at key positions are the reasons most often cited by national college football analysts about why the Owls could soar in 2013.
This is less chartered territory for Rice football. Expectations are not something that normally is associated with the program. The team won two games in 2009 and went 4-8 in 2010 and 2011. A 1-5 start in 2013 was more of the same. That’s 11-31, if you are counting along at home.
“We want to win a Conference USA championship and go to the Liberty Bowl,” Rice coach David Bailiff said during Media Day earlier this month about the team’s objective.
That statement a year ago seemed absurd. But thanks to the 5-1 finish, the departure of some of the better C-USA teams and having one of the most experienced (not to mention academically-gifted) teams in the country, a conference title is reachable.
But don’t just take Rice’s word for it. To get a feel for what others are saying outside of South Texas, here’s a look at how various college football writers elsewhere perceive the Owls. There’ some good and some bad predicted, but overall it’s clear the bar has been raised.
- Orlando Sentinel- No. 55
- College Football Universe- No. 76
- College Sports Madness- No. 78
- CBS Sports- No. 81
- USA Today- No. 94
Perhaps because of Rice’s association with former C-USA foe UCF, the Orlando Sentinel had the highest regard of the five publications.
“After a stellar second half of the 2012 season, Rice will be confident going into the fall considering they return most of the lineup from that strong finish,” said Sentinel writer Paul Tenorio. “With a true dual-threat quarterback and solid playmaking options, the Owls’ offense should be a force. They will count on 10 returning starters to improve on last season’s shaky defense. With the turnover in the C-USA, the Owls have a chance to challenge for a spot in the league championship game, but they will have to get past defending champion Tulsa. However, another bowl trip should be well within their reach.”
USA Today had the least optimism, though its review was not all bad news bears.
“This is a pretty solid Rice team,“ wrote Paul Myerberg of USA Today Sports. “The offense is good – not great, but good – and the defense is strong where it counts, along the interior of the defensive line and on the outside in the secondary. The lack of a pass rush and some still-developing pieces along the back seven will be Rice’s Achilles heel for much of 2013, as it was a season ago, but the Owls should have little trouble bottling up offenses against the weaker teams on this schedule. Getting back to six wins shouldn't be too difficult, though I’m of the belief that Rice tops out at 5-7.”
As Myerberg alluded to the defense could be the component that has the most impact on whether Rice can compete for the conference crown.
College Football Universe writer Ron Clements notes the 2012 defense was better than 2011. The trend must continue.
“The Owls ranked 84th nationally in total defense, but did close the season with five straight wins and held three of those opponents under 20 points,” Clements wrote.
College Football News.com writer Rich Cirminiello said opponents will still be able to bully Rice on the ground, and the airways will be passable by quality quarterbacks.
“However, coordinator Chris Thurmond has crafted a feisty group dotted with unsung heroes, like LB Cameron Nwosu, linemen Cody Bauer and Christian Covington and corners Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan,” he wrote.
Cirminiello broke it down further, putting the onus on Rice’s defensive backs.
“This unit, more than any other, is capable of helping the Owls go from a .500 team to one that pushes for nine or 10 wins,” he wrote. “The secondary has plenty of experienced defenders and returning starters, but it’s time for the results to match the length of their resumes. Too often, Rice gets burned through the air, yielding an unacceptable 14 yards per completion in 2012. If it becomes tougher to throw on the Owls this fall, the program will take one giant leap toward being a threatening team.”
Writers were generally enthusiastic about the return of senior quarterback Taylor McHargue, assuming he can stay on the field.
“For Rice to take the next step and compete for a Conference USA title McHargue will need to stay healthy,” wrote Joel Welser of College Sports Madness. “He has a history of injuries, mostly due to his willingness to scramble and unwillingness to go down easy. The offensive line allowed 25 sacks against McHargue in 2012, not that it was all the fault of the offensive line, but they will want to keep the hits on McHargue to a minimum.”
Myerberg of USA Today point’s out that McHargue can hurt defenses with more than his arm.
“Taylor McHargue is not your typical pocket passer: he's a more agile run-first quarterback (667 yards, 11 touchdowns) than a thrower, though Rice can scheme up ways to increase his productivity in the passing game. One way is to be unpredictable: McHargue was at his best when throwing on first down, for example, or when throwing on third down and short yardage. On the flip side, McHargue is nearly useless when asked to throw the football on clear passing downs, like third and seven-plus. He needs to be protected, basically.”
Stats and Predictions
- College Football Zealots Stats to Fear: Rice allowed 33 sacks (10th in C-USA) and allowed opponents to score TDs on 72 percent of red zone trips (last in C-USA)
- College Football Zealots Stats to Cheer: Rice converted 45 percent of third downs (3rd in C-USA) and held opponents to 37 percent conversion rate on third downs (2nd in C-USA).
- From USA Today: Rice has now allowed at least 48 points in a game 35 times since the start of the 2000 season. Rice’s record in such games is now 2-33.
- College Sports Madness is projecting a Hawaii Bowl bid.
- The Sports Network preview, which was widely distributed to media outlets, noted Rice should finish no lower than second in the West Division, with Tulsa being its only true competitor for a ticket to the conference title game.
- College Football Zealots pick: It would not shock me to see this team win nine games but let's be conservative and say they go 8-4 and get Bailiff his first back-to-back win seasons as head coach.