Like the revelation that Gabrielle Union is 39 years old (seriously), it is blunt in the way it shocks you. You actually feel guilty for how surprised you feel: less than two decades ago, Rice was a major conference football program.
Rice! They were the Southwest Conference's Vanderbilt. They did not go to a bowl game for the final 34 years of the SWC's existence, and they did have one golden era (from 1946-61 under Jess Neely, they finished in the Top 20 seven times and attended three Cotton Bowls, a Sugar Bowl, an Orange Bowl and a Bluebonnet Bowl), but for the most part they filled the "smart-kid school that makes a somewhat sleazy conference feel better about itself" role with aplomb. Since the SWC's dissolution, however, Rice has wandered aimlessly, sharing conferences with everybody from Fresno State to Marshall. Depending on your glass-half-full or half-empty approach, they have either attended two bowls in the last six years (2006, 2008), or two bowls in the last 50 years; but with Rice, it is easy to err on the side of half-empty.
College football fans really only paid attention to Rice this offseason when they came up as Chapter One of the Todd Graham Screws Over Every School In The Country saga. But it is fair to note that the Owls have improved in each of their past two seasons following their cratering in 2009. Granted, they still only improved to 98th in the F/+ rankings last year, but improvement is improvement. Generally speaking, coach David Bailiff has taken Rice on the same arc that Charlie Weis created at Notre Dame -- win big with the last coach's players, fall apart, then slowly pick up the pieces. At a less high-pressure job, Bailiff might actually receive the time to fully rebuild, but it would probably behoove him to win a few games this fall; after winning 10 games in 2008, Rice has only won a total of 10 in the last three years.
Rice has a reasonably interesting offense this year, and its defense was salty against the pass last fall. If the Owls can overcome some serious turnover in the trenches (a hefty 'if'), then their schedule is easy enough to creep back toward their third bowl in either seven (or 51) years. They aren't going to resemble a quality major-conference team any time soon; but then again, they did rank ahead of four BCS conference squads last fall, including two (Kansas and Colorado) from the conference (the original Big 12) that indirectly destroyed their major conference status. So, there's that.
Rice football coach David Bailiff has been hoping to find similar success at the football level; he has taken on a few high-profile transfers in recent years but is still looking to duplicate the out-of-nowhere success he and the Owls found in 2008, when quarterback Chase Clement and receivers James Casey and Jarett Dillard led them to ten wins and a Texas Bowl title. Running back Sam McGuffie was the highest of the high-profilers, coming in after a year under Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. He worked out alright in 2010, but neither of Bailiff's major quarterback transfers -- Nick Fanuzzi (Alabama) and Taylor Cook (Miami) -- led Rice back to the promised land of bowl eligibility. In fact, the Owls have managed just six combined wins since Clement left.
There is hope, however. Late in the 2010 season, Rice saw youngsters emerge on both sides of the ball, and quite a few of them return for 2011. Sophomore quarterback Taylor McHargue looked great late, as did running back and Wildcat threat Jeremy Eddington. There are weapons to work with on offense, but holes still exist, particularly on a defense that was banged up and (stop me if you've heard this one before) gave up far too many big plays in 2010. […]
The 2008 season bought David Bailiff a lovely contract extension, but at some point he will certainly have to start producing something again. With solid returnees and a little more luck, Rice should see decent improvement, especially if the defense ascends back toward the mean as the Stat Nerd Tidbit suggests. At the very least, even if Rice is still a bad team, their offensive potential should make them a rather enjoyable bad team. I fear that their lack of any sort of stretch-the-field threat, however, will handcuff the new offensive coordinator.
Rice's 2011 season stagnated for a couple of different reasons. First, the schedule was rough. Early trips to Texas, Baylor and Southern Miss all ended in relative disaster (average score: Opponent 46, Rice 21), as did later trips to Houston and Northwestern (average score: Opponent 51, Rice 20). The Owls did upset Purdue and pull off home wins over Memphis, UTEP and Tulane, but in the end they just didn't have enough offensive juice. The national scoring average is around 27 points; in 2011, Rice's Adj. Score was better than 27 just twice. McHargue struggled, averaging just 5.4 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) and 2.9 yards per carry. Meanwhile, running back Eddington, who exploded at the end of 2010, just never got rolling. He ceded most carries to three other backs (two of whom return) and managed just 62 rushing yards for the season.
The defense, meanwhile, was wonderfully efficient versus the pass (31st in Passing Success Rate+) and horribly inefficient versus the run (104th in Rushing Success Rate+) and could only keep the Owls in games for so long. Rice returns just about everybody outside of the trenches -- McHargue, four of the top five running backs, five of the top six receivers, two of four linebackers (while returning a key player from 2010), and six of eight defensive backs. But the team returns just 15 career starts on the offensive line and must replace its best defensive end and defensive tackle. To say the least, that presents a heck of a hurdle.
Thanks to some notable transfers and some decent recruiting, Rice seemingly has a nice set of skill position players returning this fall. Former three-star recruits McHargue and redshirt freshman Driphus Jackson are battling for the starting quarterback job, while last year's leading rusher, Turner Petersen, must fend off, among others, former three-star recruits Eddington and freshman Brandon Hamilton this fall. At receiver, you've got huge senior Vance McDonald teaming up with three-star sophomore Mario Hull, a host of three-star freshmen and redshirt freshmen, and former four-star Michigan signee Sam McGuffie, who has apparently made the transition to slot receiver for his senior season.
A) They had most of these players last year but were still semi-woeful on offense. An efficient run game didn't make enough big plays, and the passing game never got things figured out. Petersen, McGuffie (as running back) and Tyler Smith combined to gain 1,503 yards at 5.0 per carry, but they were unable to create many easy scores. Rice ran the ball slightly more frequently than average last fall, but was only so good at it, especially since opponents didn't have to fear the pass.
B) Nobody in the Rice receiving corps averaged better than 6.6 adjusted yards per target except McGuffie, who was targeted just 10 times all season. One can see why a move to the slot would benefit him -- he caught nine of ten balls for 72 yards, and he is shifty in space -- but Rice still needs someone who can go vertical from time to time. The return of 250-pound tight ends Luke Wilson and Taylor Cook and 260-pound receiver Vance McDonald gives the Owls a unique identity in the passing game, but they really need Hull, junior Andre Gautreaux or a youngster like Lovett Gibson or Dennis Parks to be able to stretch the field occasionally. Rice goes horizontal a lot, both in the passing game and a run game that features heavy Wildcats usage (Petersen as the Wildcat specialist last year after Eddington showed potential in the same role late in 2010). But at some point you have to score some easy points, and you don't do that going from left to right.
C) Five Rice linemen, who combined for 150 career starts, are gone from a line that was at least decent in 2011. Sophomore guard Drew Carroll, who started ten games last fall, returns, as do spot starters Jon Hodde and Ian Gray. But wow, there is a terrifying lack of experience up front.
John Reagan returns for his second season as Rice offensive coordinator, which can't be a bad thing. If McHargue can get his bearings after a tough sophomore season, or if Jackson, who had a nice spring, can usurp him and thrive, then Rice has a chance to score some points. But the lack of both explosiveness and experienced linemen will hinder them.
All things considered, the Rice defense certainly could have been worse last season. Linebacker Trey Briggs (39.5 tackles in 2010), corner Phillip Gaines (two passes broken up and two tackles for loss in four games last fall) and end Cody Bauer combined to play just four games in 2011 due to a series of injuries, but despite an iffy pass rush and a wealth of freshmen and sophomores in the secondary, the Owls did field an efficient pass defense out of their 4-2-5 alignment. Three-star sophomore Bryce Callahan was aggressive and successful after being thrust into the No. 1 CB role (30.0 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions, nine passes broken up), while returning safeties Paul Porras and Corey Frazier combined for eight tackles for loss, three picks and 10 passes broken up.
The problem was, if Rice wasn't making a big play near the line of scrimmage, its opponent was making a big play downfield. The Owls were a sieve against the run, and the return of Bauer and Briggs may not make up for the production lost by the departure of top end Scott Solomon (his 13.5 tackles for loss were nearly double that of the next three ends combined), tackle Michael Smith and weakside linebacker Justin Allen (10.5 tackles for loss). If Rice is incapable of making as many big plays, they will need to do an infinitely better job of preventing them.
A now-seasoned secondary should once again be the strength of the defense -- Callahan and Gaines give Rice a nice pair of corners, and all of those freshmen and sophomores are now sophomores and juniors. But can an ultra-light line (the top two returning tackles average just 280 pounds) stand up better against the run? And can a meant-for-speed defense do a better job of attacking? It appears opponents knew Rice was going to be pinning its ears back on passing downs, and while that led to a decent success rate (60th in Passing Downs Success Rate+), it also made them vulnerable to big plays, either via pass or draw play (88th in Passing Downs PPP+). Briggs and Cameron Nwosu, Rice's leading tackle last year, face a lot of pressure to both clean up messes against the run and successfully get to the passer on blitzes. New coordinator Chris Thurmond is maintaining the 4-2-5 as the primary lineup, which certainly matches the personnel well; now it just needs to be more successful.
The good news: Rice plays five teams projected 104th or worse this fall. The bad news: 1) They will also be projected 104th or worse, and 2) They face four of these five opponents on the road. The bar should be set around four wins or so again, but with such little recent success, Bailiff is likely going to face pressure to raise that to five or six. It is difficult to know what his job status is -- he did win 10 games in 2008, but he did oversee 10 wins from 2009-11 -- but four wins might not cut it this fall.
Rice has a fast, athletic team that can match quite a few Conference USA opponents in a seven-on-seven game. Unfortunately, it's 11-on-11, and there is little evidence to suggest that the battle in the trenches won't set Rice back considerably. They could make up for this with some big plays -- takeaways on defense, big gains on offense -- but while the personnel suggests they could be capable of the former (the "5" in the 4-2-5 could occasionally create havoc), they will be relying on freshmen for the latter, and that typically isn't a winning strategy.
Rice has long been a lovely underdog tale. And who knows, with sustained success following 2008's run, they may have been able to shove their way into "Smart-kid school of the Big East" status. But as it stands, college football's power structure has left Rice behind to a certain degree, and little about the 2012 roster suggests they will be capable of getting any of that power back this fall.