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Year 2 of Rice’s Stanford-ization: young talent and a brutal schedule

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Building Rice is going to take a little while, but Mike Bloomgren probably knew that in advance.

Old Dominion v Rice
Mike Bloomgren
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

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 Jim Harbaugh at The Farm more than a decade ago, it’ll probably take a little while.

2018 Rice football preview

Though results have leveled off a bit — in 2018, the Cardinal finished outside of the S&P+ top 25 for the first time since 2008 (granted, they were 26th) — Stanford remains one of the most unlikely sustained successes in college football. The Cardinal don’t have an immense athletic budget, a voluminous fan base, or a blueblood’s history, and they do have restrictive admissions standards. Yet they’ve averaged 10 wins per year for the last decade.

Rice’s stature within Conference USA has some parallels with where Stanford was in about 2007, when Jim Harbaugh took the job. The school’s history is dotted with random successes, but sustainability has been a problem. David Bailiff sustained it better than most, taking the Owls to four bowls in a seven-year span and winning the 2013 C-USA title.

Rice went 4-20 with S&P+ rankings in the 120s in each of his last two seasons, and when Stanford Guy Mike Bloomgren took over last year, he was going to need a yearlong reset, a Year Zero, before he could build. Still, I thought he had an outside shot at three or four wins.

Rice was lucky to win two.

The depth chart got stripped down even further than I anticipated. Bloomgren encouraged quarterback Jackson Tyner to focus on baseball. Backup Miklo Smalls transferred. Two more QBs got hurt in-season, which led to two different redshirting freshmen seeing action. Leading returning rusher Nahshon Ellerbe missed most of the year with injury. Left tackle Calvin Anderson, probably the best player on the 2017 team, transferred to Texas.

The two-deep was a husk of talent and experience, and the Owls produced a post-game win expectancy higher than 19 percent in just one game (a rousing season finale win over ODU). It took some fluky bounces for them to beat even Prairie View A&M. UTEP and UTSA won a combined four games in 2018; two came against Rice, and by a combined 25 points.

It was bad. And now we begin to find out if there was a point to the pain.

Most of last season’s better players return in 2019, and Bloomgren has added a layer of transfers to the offense: Stanford center Brian Chaffin, Harvard quarterback Tom Stewart, NC Central left tackle Nick Leverett (a three-year starter). The defensive line, one of the relative strengths, has to get rebuilt, but basically every other unit brings more experience now.

Rice has a chance to improve a bit, but you won’t know it from the Owls’ record, as the schedule is unforgiving. They are, per S&P+, at least a three-touchdown underdog in every non-conference game, and not only do they play only four teams with a projected ranking in the 100s, but they play all four on the road. Their average projected win total is 2.6, and if they exceed S&P+ expectations by a touchdown per game, it rises to only 4.0.

Still, you can show improvement even while losing, and we’ll see if a year of focus on physicality and competition can yield a better product.

Offense

Few coaches made more liberal use of the new four-game redshirt rule than Bloomgren. Redshirting Rice freshmen ended up throwing for 631 yards (621 from Wiley Green), rushing for 55 non-sack yards (all from Green), catching 10 passes (Brendan Harmon), and starting four games on the offensive line (Clay Servin, Jake Syptak). He gave guys like Green and Servin the most extended playing time possible; we’ll see how quickly that pays off.

Green’s performance was particularly enticing. He was absolutely overwhelmed in his first game against FIU (1-for-6 for eight yards with two interceptions) but produced a respectable 123.6 passer rating thereafter.

Thanks to the addition of Stewart (who produced a 141.9 rating at Harvard last year and doesn’t mind throwing vertically), Rice will head into spring ball with four quarterbacks who have seen sustained playing time: Stewart, Green, sophomore Evan Marshman (whose injury opened the door for Green once original starter Shawn Stankavage went down), and Sam Glaesmann, a part-time starter in 2017.

Throw in another redshirt freshman (Parker Towns, who went 1-for-4 against Louisiana Tech and LSU) and incoming freshman Jovoni Johnson, and you’ve got a crowded QBs room. We’ll see if anyone emerges.

Rice v Florida International
Wiley Green
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Rice’s tendencies were very Stanford-like in 2018 — run on standard downs, run on passing downs, play at the slowest tempo imaginable (128th in adjusted pace), try to avoid negative plays. But the receiving corps was probably the best thing the Owls’ offense had, and that could be the case again.

Whichever quarterback emerges from the pile will have juniors Austin Trammell and Aaron Cephus (combined: 102 catches, 1,197 yards, 8 TDs) at their disposal, plus an up-the-seam threat in tight end Jordan Myers (16.1 yards per catch) and lanky incoming junior Bradley Rozner (15.1 yards per catch in two seasons at Cisco CC). Harmon got his feet wet, and converted DB D’Angelo Ellis caught three balls for 66 yards against LSU late last year.

Somehow Rice has one of the more tantalizing receiving corps in the conference, and aside from Ellis, it is devoid of seniors. We’ll see if the QBs and the system take advantage.

Well, let me rephrase. Unless some new starters thrive, Rice will be throwing a lot anyway, simply because of the large number of second- and third-and-longs.

UTEP v Rice
Austin Trammell
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Owls have to replace last year’s top two rushers (Austin Walter and Emmanuel Esukpa) and both starters on the right side of the line (Sam Pierce and Joseph Dill). But the aforementioned new starters are intriguing. Leverett was all-MEAC, Chaffin was a high-three-star prospect, and while Rice had averaged 8.3 points in its first three conference games, the Owls averaged 20 in Servin’s three starts. In all, 41 of 65 line starts went to six freshmen and sophomores, and all are scheduled to return. I think the line improves a good amount.

Plus, Walter’s and Esukpa’s absence could mean more playing time for sophomore Juma Otoviano, easily the most intriguing of last year’s backs (albeit in a small sample). He played in seven games, rushed 38 times for just 140 yards in the first six, and then exploded for 224 yards and two scores in the win over ODU. You don’t want to overreact to one big game, but that was one big game.

Coordinator Jerry Mack, formerly a highly successful head coach at NC Central, will have an interesting balance to strive for this fall. The incoming grad transfers, plus veteran backs like Nahshon Ellerbe and Aston Walter, could help to give the Owls a higher floor. But it will probably be tempting to look at the 2019 schedule and start work on the 2020 offense instead. Combining Green, Otoviano, Servin, and the young linemen with that high-ceiling receiving corps could make for big things a year from now.

Defense

Defense has dragged Rice down for years. The last time the Owls’ D ranked higher in S&P+ than their offense was 2013, their conference title year. They were 61st in Def. S&P+ that year and proceeded to slip to 80th, 116th, 119th, and 126th under Bailiff.

They rebounded in 2018, though! To 125th!

Unfortunately, most of the improvement was based around a line that doesn’t really exist any more. Rice ranked 86th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), which was about as good a ranking as it produced in anything, and the run defense was ahead of the pass defense overall (105th in rushing marginal efficiency, 117th passing).

Tackles Zach Abercrumbia, Roe Wilkins, and Parker Hanusa, and rush end Graysen Schantz are gone. Granted, coordinator Brian Smith deployed a pretty big rotation up front, which will help. Tackles Elijah Garcia and Myles Adams were also contributors, and Adams actually led the line in havoc plays (five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles). Plus, sophomore rush end Trey Schuman had a higher ratio of havoc plays to tackles (15 percent) than Schantz (10). But to deploy as big a rotation in 2019 will require playing quite a few true or redshirt freshmen.

Houston v Rice
Myles Adams (99) and George Nyakwol (20)
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Outside of the front four, a lot of young guys took a lot of lumps in 2018. The linebacking corps consisted of three sophomores and two freshmen, and played like sophomores and freshmen. But Anthony Ekpe was a one-man pass rush, leading the team with six sacks (Adams was the only other player with more than one), and junior-to-be Blaze Alldredge made 4.5 TFLs while finishing second on the team in tackles.

NCAA Football: Rice at Wake Forest
Blaze Alldredge
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary was ultra-young, too, but a couple of transfers will keep it on the young side. The top five tacklers in the back were underclassmen, but only three return: safeties George Nyakwol and Prudy Calderon and corner Tyrae Thornton. They had combined for five career tackles heading into 2018 but produced 104.5 tackles, five TFLs, six interceptions, and 13 breakups. (Yes, they produced these numbers while getting burned a decent amount. Still.)

Losing corner Justin Bickham and safety Houston Robert to transfer, however, means players like redshirt freshman Andrew Bird (7.5 tackles in two games), JUCO transfer Naeem Smith, and star recruit Jake Bailey will need to contribute sooner than later.

Special Teams

Great special teams have long been part of the Stanford formula. The Owls surged from 117th to 29th in Special Teams S&P+, and junior Austin Trammell was one of the reasons why.

Unfortunately, he’s really the only returnee. Jack Fox was a great kickoffs guy, booming punter, and decent place-kicker, so losing him is like losing three guys. Still, special teams is always going to be a major focus with Bloomgren, so maybe Fox’s replacement will be strong, too.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug at Army 80 -21.2 11%
7-Sep Wake Forest 62 -20.7 12%
14-Sep vs. Texas 35 -29.0 5%
21-Sep Baylor 40 -25.7 7%
28-Sep Louisiana Tech 86 -15.1 19%
5-Oct at UAB 106 -12.7 23%
19-Oct at UTSA 128 -0.8 48%
26-Oct Southern Miss 74 -17.5 16%
2-Nov Marshall 77 -16.4 17%
16-Nov at Middle Tennessee 104 -13.2 22%
23-Nov North Texas 84 -15.5 19%
30-Nov at UTEP 130 6.0 64%
Projected S&P+ Rk 126
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 123 / 113
Projected wins 2.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -16.8 (125)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 119
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -1.0
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 81% (76%, 85%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 1.5 (0.5)

Rice will field a lineup that features exciting underclassmen in most units, so while improvement might be light, most of the reasons for that improvement will come back in 2020, when the Owls could boast 17 to 19 returning starters, depending on how young Mack chooses to go on offense. (The defense will likely start only one senior.)

Keep this in mind when Rice is getting dragged early in 2019. The Owls begin with Army, Wake Forest, Texas, Baylor, Louisiana Tech, and defending C-USA champ UAB. Four of these games are in Houston; that probably won’t matter much.

In all, S&P+ projects Rice as a favorite in just one game (home against UTEP) and as a single-digit underdog in just one more (at UTSA). The non-conference slate is unforgiving, and the home-road splits in conference are downright cruel, with most of the more beatable opponents playing host to the Owls.

Still, I’d be surprised if Rice isn’t more competitive, and I’m not just saying that because of the near-total lack of 2018 competitiveness. Having a young base means Rice will be awfully volatile, but the good moments could give Bloomgren’s team a shot at a couple of upsets. The goal is to stock on just enough moments to keep growth on pace for 2020.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.