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Can Rice become the Stanford of Conference USA football?

This new coaching staff makes a lot of sense, but have some patience.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Rice Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Not every sensible hire works out, but making a sensible hire is still a step in the right direction.

In Tuesday’s UTEP preview, I said that the Miners going after a head coach with Bill Snyder/Kansas State roots made a lot of sense — UTEP is battling a massive funk and a small recruiting base, and the combined ethos of continuous improvement, physical play, and a simple offense makes sense.

It makes as much sense for Rice to go after a Stanford guy, doesn’t it?

The David Bailiff era in Houston featured one of the most impressive second winds you’ll ever see; after going 10-26 from 2009-11 and starting out 2-6 in 2012, his Owls won their final five games of that season, then won 10 games and the Conference USA title the next year.

Coaches rarely get the opportunity to even attempt a rebound like that, but Bailiff rewarded the patience of his higher-ups.

His Owls also faded from basically the moment they lifted that trophy.

  • 2013: 10-4, 65th in S&P+
  • 2014: 8-5, 78th
  • 2015: 5-7, 118th
  • 2016: 3-9, 121st
  • 2017: 1-11, 128th

That’s about as linear a slide as you’ll ever see.

Bloomgren’s got one of the more unusual résumés you’ll see. After three years as an Alabama graduate assistant under Mike DuBose, the Culver-Stockton College (in northeastern Missouri) graduate took the small school route, landing the Catawba offensive co-coordinator job at age 25, then the Delta State OC job at 28. After two years of a pass-happy system, he took on a different path, landing a quality control job with the New York Jets. Within three years, he was assistant offensive line coach.

When Jim Harbaugh left Stanford for the 49ers in 2011, his replacement, David Shaw, kept a lot of pieces. But he brought the 34-year-old Bloomgren out west, first as OL coach, then as offensive coordinator ... I mean, Andrew Luck Director of Offense.

With Bloomgren running the offense, Stanford ... looked like Stanford. They primarily ran on standard downs and did plenty of running on passing downs, too. They played at nearly the slowest tempo in the country. They demanded that you gang tackle. They played burly ball in a league that typically tries to spread you out, and they have established a national top-10 or so level at a nerd school.

At the moment, Rice would settle for being top 10 in Conference USA.

The draw of a Stanford system for C-USA’s smart-kid school is obvious. Most teams spread you out in this conference, too, and in a best-case scenario, Bloomgren attracts the right mix of talent, brawn, and competitiveness to punish rival defenses for getting smaller and faster. But as it did for Harbaugh at The Farm more than a decade ago, it’ll probably take a little while.

Offense

2017 Rice offensive radar

There is plenty of Stanford on Bloomgren’s first Rice staff. Offensive line coach Joe Ashfield was a Stanford analyst for the last few seasons, and quarterbacks coach Robbie Picazo was first a Cardinal quarterback, then an offensive assistant under Bloomgren.

The non-Stanford offensive hires are pretty intriguing, though. First there’s tight ends coach Bill Best, who was most recently Stephen F. Austin’s run game coordinator. He obviously has local ties, and SFA has had one of the most consistently appealing run games in FCS.

Then there’s coordinator Jerry Mack, who spent the last four years building a MEAC juggernaut at NC Central. Bloomgren actually brought in a pair of coaches with HBCU backgrounds — Mack and defensive ends coach Cedric Calhoun, who has coached for both Alabama A&M and Dartmouth. If you’re looking to compete at a high level with fewer resources than some of your rivals, there are worse places to look.

Mack’s 2016 squad won the MEAC and nearly took the Celebration Bowl; he steered a reasonably balanced offense (35 rushes and 27 passes per game) that combined between-the-tackles rushing with a QB run threat and a vertical passing game.

As intrigued as I am by Bloomgren’s hires, you still need talent. What does this staff inherit?

  • Quarterback Miklo Smalls is a true sophomore who took over late in the year and engineered some improvement. Rice averaged 13.1 points per game over its first eight and 22.5 per game over the last four. He threw just one touchdown pass to five picks and took a ton of sacks, but his marginal efficiency and explosiveness figures were better than Rice’s other two QBs (Jackson Tyner and Sam Glaesmann), and not including sacks, he averaged 7.4 yards per carry.
  • A foursome of experienced backs — Nahshon Ellerbe, Austin Walter, Samuel Stewart, Emmanuel Esukpa — combined for 1,300 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, plus 37 receptions for 441 yards. Ellerbe and Stewart were the most efficient, Walter the most explosive and most trusted receiver. Rice’s problems were mostly pass-related last year; the Owls were a decent 65th in Rushing S&P+ and eighth in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards).
  • Aaron Cephus is a 6’4 sophomore who was thrust into the No. 1 receiver role last year and was hilariously all-or-nothing: 46 percent catch rate, 24.9 yards per catch.
  • There are some potentially decent possession options in junior Kylen Granson, sophomore Jordan Myers, and sophomore Austin Trammell. The former two are built like H-backs (each at least 6’2, 220), the latter a slot receiver (5’10, 174). And no, Bloomgren doesn’t have a battalion of 38 tight ends to deploy yet. The three-deep there might consist of a sophomore (6’4 Will Phillips) and two redshirt freshmen (6’6 Brandt Peterson and 6’4 Jaeger Bull*).
  • The offensive line ... will be getting a fresh look. That’s a happy spin, isn’t it? It has to replace three starters, including a pair of honorable mention all-conference guys (tackle Calvin Anderson and center Trey Martin), though four guys with a combined 47 career starts do return. There’s decent size here — junior guard Joseph Dill is a beefy 6’4, 330 — but Rice will be only an injury or two away from playing some freshmen or redshirt freshmen.

Rice wasn’t terrible at running, and the Owls will attempt a lot of that this fall. I’m curious about what Bloomgren, Mack, and Picazo can do with Smalls, who was a three-star recruit and really did flash potential among a myriad of mistakes. The others in the QB battle have plenty of time to learn and grow (Tyner’s a junior, Glaesman a redshirt sophomore), but the best-case scenario is that Smalls takes the job and runs with it.

* His full name is Jaeger Stone Bull! Nothing in this preview series will make me happier than that discovery.

NCAA Football: Florida International at Rice
Austin Walter
John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Rice defensive radar

Rice’s defense was a walking contradiction in 2017.

  • The Owls rushed the passer incredibly but still made opponents want to pass; they allowed an almost impossibly high 70 percent completion rate, highest in the country.
  • They allowed a not-terrible 5.9 yards per play on first downs (70th in FBS) but somehow still managed to rank 127th with 54.2 percent standard downs success rate.
  • Despite the risk generally associated with a good pass rush, they didn’t allow many huge pass plays (2.8 passes of 20-plus yards per game, 38th), but they gave up all the 10-yard gains you could want — 17.4 of them per game (127th).

As odd a concoction as it was, it was also a bad one. Rice ranked 122nd in Def. S&P+, its third straight year of ranking 122nd or worse. And now it must replace chief pass rusher Brian Womac (22 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), its top three linebackers, and its top two safeties.

God bless Brian Smith for taking the coordinator job. We’ll see if that was foolish.

Smith spent the last two seasons as Harbaugh’s defensive backs coach at Michigan. That’s a pretty big gold star on the résumé. But he’s taking on a pretty immense reclamation job.

2017 US College Football Sydney Cup
Roe Wilkins
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

There should still be a little bit of pop in the pass rush. Junior Roe Wilkins complemented Womac with 6.5 sacks among his 8.5 TFLs, and nose tackle Zach Abercrumbia had a pair of sacks. His return, plus that of tackle Carl Thompson, should help with depth. Senior Graysen Schantz and sophomore OLB Anthony Ekpe might have a bit of havoc in them as well.

That Ekpe is the most experienced linebacker after recording 9 tackles as a sophomore, however, is an obvious concern. Bloomgren signed four linebackers, including three-star Kebreyun Page, but depth is a desperate concern there.

Despite losing safeties Destri White and J.T. Ibe, it doesn’t appear experience will be an issue in the back. Talent might be, but not experience. Nickel Martin Nwakamma returns and, considering the role nickels played in both Michigan’s and Stanford’s defenses in recent years, he’ll be be asked to do a lot more attacking if he remains the starter there.

The cornerback trio of seniors Brandon Douglas-Dotson and Jorian Clark and junior Justin Bickham did flash some havoc potential as well, combining for 8 TFLs and 16 passes defensed. Still, it’s hard to shake that whole “70 percent completion rate” thing. Experience won’t be an issue at the front or back of the D, but there’s a long way to go here.

Special Teams

Among all the other issues Bailiff had to deal with, special teams was starting from scratch as well. Freshman Will Harrison manned place-kicking duties, and freshman Austin Trammell was the primary return man. Jack Fox’s booming leg was a bright spot — he was 31st in kickoff efficiency and booted 69 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks — but between missed field goals and minimal returns, Rice still ranked just 116th in Special Teams S&P+.

Enter Pete Lembo. Bringing the former Ball State head coach aboard to both serve as associate head coach and special teams coordinator is a nice touch.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
25-Aug Prairie View A&M NR 16.0 82%
1-Sep Houston 59 -15.8 18%
8-Sep at Hawaii 122 -4.5 40%
22-Sep at Southern Miss 94 -12.7 23%
29-Sep at Wake Forest 34 -26.1 7%
6-Oct UTSA 104 -5.4 38%
13-Oct UAB 91 -8.7 31%
20-Oct at Florida International 120 -5.9 37%
27-Oct at North Texas 86 -15.1 19%
3-Nov UTEP 130 6.6 65%
10-Nov at Louisiana Tech 70 -18.3 14%
17-Nov at LSU 16 -32.7 3%
24-Nov Old Dominion 114 -2.2 45%
Projected S&P+ Rk 128
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 111 / 123
Projected wins 4.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -9.9 (113)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 123 / 118
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -23 / -8.7
2017 TO Luck/Game -5.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 70% (81%, 58%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 2.3 (-1.3)

I like the coaching staff. There’s an inspired mix of guys Bloomgren’s worked with and guys who know about succeeding in hard jobs, and I respect that. But that’s no guarantee any of this will work. Herm Edwards- or Charlie Weis-like exceptions aside, most head coaching hires are pretty sensible. But only one team can win each game, and plenty of intriguing hires fail.

Bloomgren will give himself a chance, though. He inherits a squad with decent speed and assets he can work with — the components of a nice run game, attackers on the edge of the defense, etc. There’s a perilous lack of depth in plenty of units, and a reliance on young, all-or-nothing players like Smalls and Cephus will likely create volatility, but S&P+ gives the Owls at least a 37 percent chance of winning in six games and projects a 4-8 record for 2018. That would be a nice step forward after four consecutive years of backtracking, and it could provide just enough of a recruiting bump to lead Rice back toward respectability.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.