This preview originally published February 28 and has since been updated.
David Bailiff has walked through the world a little differently than most coaches, and at this point in his career, the 58-year-old has produced one of the stranger résumés imaginable.
He has mentored two current Big 12 head coaches — Texas' Tom Herman, Kansas' David Beaty (not to mention Colorado defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and Rutgers offensive coordinator-turned-Herman assistant Drew Mehringer) — without ever coaching in a major conference himself.
And in a decade at Rice, he has managed to both win a Conference USA title (unlikely) and average a 5-7 season without getting fired (perhaps even more unlikely).
A small-school product — he graduated from Texas State back when it had "Southwest" at the start of its name — Bailiff began his coaching career as a high school defensive line coach, then ended it.
Bailiff went into private business but was drawn back as a graduate assistant at his alma mater. He claimed a branch on the Dennis Franchione tree, then followed Franchione to New Mexico.
When his former teammate Bob DeBesse took the job at (SW) TXST, Bailiff signed on as his defensive coordinator. And when Franchione left TCU for the Alabama job and his successor, Gary Patterson, was looking for a line coach, Bailiff got the call.
Bailiff got his first head coaching gig, naturally, back at the alma mater. He won 21 games in three years and took his Bobcats to the 2005 I-AA semifinals, and that was enough to attract a rather desperate Rice. The Owls had gone 45 years between bowls (with only six winning seasons in the process) before first-year head coach Todd Graham brought them to the New Orleans Bowl in 2006 and left for Tulsa. Scorned and scrambling, the program went unorthodox.
The results have been ... unorthodox. Bailiff has been known for innovative offenses despite his history as a defensive coach, and he has produced four bowls, a conference title, two 10-win seasons ... and three three-win (or worse) campaigns. Either things click or they don't.
In the meantime, Rice has upgraded its facilities and shed most of its "You simply can't win here" reputation.
Bailiff's tenure has been a success. But the downfall has been undeniable. Since winning C-USA in 2013, the win total has fallen from 10 to eight to five to three. The Owls' S&P+ ranking has gone from 65th to 78th to 118th to 121st. In theory, when you raise your program's standards and then fail to meet the raised bar, you are cut loose. But here Bailiff is, preparing for his 11th year near downtown H-Town.
Bailiff has already pulled off two turnarounds at Rice. Following a 3-9 debut, he ripped off 10-win season No. 1. And following a stretch of just 10 wins in three years (2009-11), he won 25 over the next three. He has proved that, given time, he can figure things out, and despite the crazy impatience of this profession, he has been given that time.
Does he have another turnaround in him? Based on what we've learned about the talent, it's hard to be too optimistic. An offense that ranked 97th in Off. S&P+ must replace its leading passer, rusher, and receiver. A defense that was true dreck must replace maybe its two best playmakers. The defense does have far more experience than it did, and the offensive line could be one of the conference's best. But is that enough? Injuries and a stomach virus played a role in Rice’s low 2016 ratings, but is there actually upside?
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, and little about the 2012 roster suggests they will be capable of getting any of that back this fall.
Rice began 2012 by losing six of eight. Then the Owls won 15 of their next 19.
2016 in review
The less said about Rice's 2016, the better. If you're looking for reasons for optimism, you could point to the fact that the Owls began 0-6 and finished 3-3. There was a bit of an uptick in quality:
- First 6 games (0-6) — Avg. percentile performance: 19 percent (~top 105) | Avg. score: Opp 36, Rice 19 (-17) | Yards per play: Opp 7.2, Rice 4.8 (-2.4)
- Last 6 games (3-3) — Avg. percentile performance: 36 percent (~top 80) | Avg. score: Opp 39, Rice 32 (-7) | Yards per play: Opp 7.7, Rice 5.5 (-2.2)
Still, the defense regressed down the stretch almost as much as the offense improved, and Rice's three wins came against a below-average FCS team (Prairie View A&M) and teams ranked 122nd (UTEP) and 125th (Charlotte) in S&P+. Within that span, they also lost by 45 to Louisiana Tech and by 17 to a pretty bad FAU.
So let's just move on. Rice was bad. Let's see if the Owls will be better.
(Actually, one more thing, if only because of uniqueness: about one-third of the team was floored by a stomach virus in late-October. That probably explains a little bit of the ghastly margin against La. Tech and the loss to FAU.)
Bailiff's career has been defined as much as anything by strong hires. Indeed, he gave well-regarded young coaches early-career breaks. And you could say he's staking his latest turnaround on another couple of young guys.
Billy Lynch has been around for a while now. He's entering his seventh season at Rice and his fourth as at least co-coordinator. The Ball State grad was able to figure out a decent path in 2016 -- the Owls' offense only improved from 102nd to 97th in Off. S&P+, but it did improve by quite a bit later in the season.
The Lynch offense was a pretty familiar one for Rice; it had a high tempo and created a decent number of solo tackles (indicating spread-out defenses), though the Owls did run a bit more than they previously have. Quarterback Tyler Stehling had his moments of mobility; not including sacks, he rushed about six to seven times per game at about six yards per carry. QBs rushed more times in 2016 than in 2015, when Driphus Jackson was behind center.
Still, Rice went from rushing 68 percent of the time on standard downs (20th in FBS) to 58 percent (80th); the Owls also ran more on passing downs than they did the year before, a product of some combination of Stehling's scrambling and an attempt at unpredictability.
Last year doesn't really matter, though, because Stehling's gone. In his stead comes a battle royale. Three other QBs (sophomores Jackson Tyner and J.T. Granato and senior Nate German, who is more WR than QB at this point) threw passes last year, and a couple of three-star youngsters (redshirt Sam Glaesmann and incoming signee Miklo Smalls) could enter the mix.
Actually, all five were three-star recruits; Bailiff's reputation has allowed him to ink some intriguing quarterback talent. But someone will need to seize the job, and you never know how that will go.
I guess you could consider Tyner the favorite; when Stehling got hurt against UTEP, Tyner lost an early fumble but then led the Owls to 34 straight points. (He had a miserable outing against Stanford in the season finale, but Stanford's not in Conference USA.)
Another young coach could play an important role. Wesley Beschorner is the new QBs coach, and while I rarely talk about position coaches in these previews, he was a quality control guy for Matt Canada’s awesome 2016 Pitt offense, and he fits the profile of a guy who often thrives under Bailiff.
The quarterback will have at least a couple of exciting weapons. Former star recruit Samuel Stewart had a breakout season in support of since-departed back Darik Dillard. Stewart ended up with 603 combined rushing and receiving yards and six touchdowns; he averaged 6.2 yards per carry (with better efficiency and explosiveness than Dillard), and he did most of his damage in only five games. He'll need to prove he can stay healthy, but if he does, he's a big threat.
Also a threat: senior receiver Temi Alaka [Update: he’s since transferred to USF]. He had only four catches for 26 yards in the first four games of the year, then put up 24 for 432 over the next seven. A lot of that came against PVAMU (six catches, 143 yards), but he made big plays against Southern Miss, FAU, and UTEP, too. He and sophomore possession man Kylen Granson bring some nice size and potential to the table, as do similarly-sized juniors Lance Wright and Parker Smith.
The biggest assets, though, might be up front. As with a lot of units last year, injury forced some shuffling on Rice's offensive line, but the Owls bring back seven hosses with starting experience, including honorable-mention all-conference performers Calvin Anderson (left tackle) and Trey Martin (center) and two-year starting guard Peter Godber. There is meat here, too: the 12 linemen I list on Rice's preview data page have an average size of 6'4, 306.
With a stable starting five, this could be an excellent line, and when you think about Stewart behind this line, you start to see big improvement in Rice's future.
With each preview, I share an offensive and defensive radar for each team. They are designed to communicate pockets of strength or weakness. And if the radar is pretty much deflated, well, that says something, too.
Yeah. Rice wanted to be aggressive and produced a decent pass rush and success rate. But if opponents got a pass off, it was finding its target, and the recipient was running a long way. And efficiency wasn’t nearly enough of a strength to account for the big plays.
Let’s put this another way:
The good news, as it were, is that injuries (and illness!) really did make things worse. Rice ended up with 11 linemen making between eight and 32 tackles; five missed at least one game, and three missed at least four. Meanwhile, of the 11 primary defensive backs, five missed time, and a 12th missed all season.
The only thing worse than having a shaky lineup is having a shaky lineup that changes every week.
Now, for all we know, the injury bug will bite again this fall. But if that regresses toward a more acceptable mean, Rice's 2017 lineup might’ve benefited from 2016. Ten of those 11 linemen return, as do nine of those 12 defensive backs. And senior Emmanuel Ellerbee is back to anchor the linebacking corps.
Stats show continuity is most important at the back of the defense, and Rice has it. The main problem, though, is that maybe the two best play-makers (safety Tabari McGaskey and middle linebacker Alex Lyons) are among the small handful of departed defenders.
There appears to be potential up front. The top three returning ends (Blain Padgett, Graysen Schantz, Brian Womac) combined for 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks last year, and the top four returning tackles (Preston Gordon, Roe Wilkins, Carl Thompson, Zach Abercrumbia) combined for 12.5 and six, respectively. There isn't enough size here -- none of those ends are over 250 pounds, and only two of those tackles are over 280 -- but the activity level could compensate.
The biggest loss is probably McGaskey. He combined 11 tackles for loss with six passes defensed (a rare combination), and he was the only real play-maker in the back. Nickel back Destri White did have four tackles for loss, and three returnees had at least four passes defensed (four if you include sophomore Justin Bickham, who missed 2016), but there will need to be improvement there.
Well, there will need to be improvement everywhere. Rice had the worst passing downs defense in the country even with a decent pass rush, and the Owls' "strongest" primary rating was a No. 92 spot in Standard Downs S&P+. Even if the offense comes together, you don't have a high ceiling with such a woeful defense. But we'll see what better injuries luck can do.
Special teams made things neither better nor worse for Rice. The Owls were 87th in Special Teams S&P+ ranking between 54th and 96th in all five individual categories. The entire unit returns, so the extent that experience matters, it could boost the lineup a hair. But there probably won't be significant shifts up or down here.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|18-Nov||at Old Dominion||93||-10.1||28%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||120|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||106 / 112|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-15.1 (121)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||124 / 111|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-7 / -8.3|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||+0.5|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||66% (53%, 78%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||3.9 (-0.9)|
When you've slid for three straight years and don't have impressive recruiting rankings, you are, of course, going to project pretty poorly. That S&P+ says Rice will rank around 120th this year isn't a surprise. And at that level, the Owls are given a better than 50 percent chance of winning in just one game this fall.
But if you're hoping Bailiff has another turnaround in him, you don't have to spin too much. For one thing, Rice really was beset by an abnormal number of knocks last year. And for another, the schedule isn't that far from flipping in the Owls' favor.
Rice faces four games with a win probability between 46 and 48 percent and two more with 36 percent. Granted, a bowl bid would require the Owls to win all but one of them, but you can at least see how a healthier, far more experienced team finds a quarterback, plays well in the trenches, and stops its recent slide.
You can also see how the Bailiff era limps to a quiet end, of course. You can see that more clearly, in fact. But Bailiff has stared down the odds before.