by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We’ve seen late-season developments often prove misleading indicators of future performance. To wit: How are things working out this season for the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs, with managers Buck Showalter and Mike Quade, respectively, after both teams performed well without much pressure in test runs for their new skippers late last season? Similarly, was Rice’s mild upsurge at the end of last season a “buy” signal, or will it just be business as usual for the Owls, who became, well, Rice again the past two seasons after that unexpected 10-win bowl campaign of 2008?

Forgive Owls fans, however, for getting a bit wistful about those heady days three years ago when Rice was scoring better than 40 ppg, winning 10 games, and prevailing in a bowl game for the first time since the 1954 Cotton Bowl, made famous by Dicky Moegle being tackled by Alabama’s Tommy Lewis, who famously came off the bench to prevent the long TD run (to no avail, however, as refs awarded Moegle a 95-yard TD in the Owls’ eventual 28-6 win). Only two years prior, in 2006, Rice had broken its 45-year bowl appearance drought, so the emerging trend of postseason appearances had the Owl faithful understandably giddy. If not a bit concerned that then 2nd-year HC David Bailiff would soon be targeted by interested suitors, just as predecessor Todd Graham had been after that 2006 bowl appearance by his previous employer Tulsa, as well as some of their other more promising coaches over the past 50 years.

Losing, however, has been part of the Rice football fabric for the past half century; only 7 times in the past 49 seasons has the program forged a winning record. Not since Jess Neely’s teams were bowl regulars in the ‘50s and into the early ‘60s had the Owls made much if any noise on the gridiron until those brief revivals in 2006 & ‘08. Along the way, various coaches failed where Neely had succeeded, as Rice became an also ran in the old Southwest Conference, with limited enrollment and high academic standards making it very tough for the Owls to compete, especially with powerhouses such as Texas, Arkansas, and later SMU and Texas A&M, and even Baylor, frequently in the mix for national honors. Coaches would often move from Rice at the first opportunity; Bill Peterson, just one year on the job after putting Florida State’s program on the map, left for the hometown NFL Oilers in 1972. Watson Brown used Rice as a steppingstone back to his alma mater Vanderbilt, lasting just two years in Houston in the mid ‘80s. Just when the Owls seemed to be finding some traction for Fred Goldsmith in the early ‘90s, he bolted for Duke (yes, even Blue Devil football has been a step up from Rice lately). Option devotee Ken Hatfield had the longest stint in the post-Neely era, stewarding the program in its subsequent moves to the WAC in 1996 and eventually to Conference USA in 2005, and actually forged three winning records in his twelve seasons on the job before his regime unraveled midway in the past decade. Graham stayed only for one year before heading back from whence he came, Tulsa. Now Bailiff enters his fifth season at something of a crossroads, as a third straight year of roadkill status likely puts him on the hot seat.

Of course, there has been occasional talk over the past two decades if Rice should even bother continuing to compete in the sport, as the program began to lose stature not long after its wondrous 70,000-seat stadium, still owning perhaps the best sightlines in college football, was built in 1950. Several years ago, however, school officials covered the wooden end zone bleachers, which had decayed from weather and termites over the years, with a tarpaulin not unlike the one used by the Oakland A’s to cover the top deck of the Coliseum for their home games. And for good reason; Rice hadn’t sold out a game since the ‘60s, and the total number of Rice alumni (both alive and dead) still couldn’t fill the stadium, which now “officially” seats 47,000. For big-draw home games vs. likes such as the University of Texas, the Owls will now play nearby at modern Reliant Stadium. Rice football, however, is hardly a tough ticket; even with the inflated attendance from the Texas game, the Owls averaged only 25,000 fans to their 7 home games a year ago. In 2009, without a home game vs. Texas, the average home attendance was a puny 13,353, and it was only 20,179 in the bowl year of 2008.

Although, from a historical perspective, Rice Stadium’s place is secure no matter how poorly the Owls perform. It was host to Super Bowl VIII, won by the Dolphins over the Vikings in January of 1974. Twelve years earlier, it was the sight of President Kennedy’s famous speech that challenged Americans to meet his goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In the speech, one of the most memorable of JFK’s career, he even mentioned the Owls (“Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”).

Bailiff might be well-served to invoke JFK’s speech to the 2011 Owls after a combined 6-18 mark the past two seasons since that aforementioned 10-win campaign and the 38-14 romp over Western Michigan in the hometown Texas Bowl in 2008, which now must seem like a decade ago. And if it seems as if Rice hasn’t been able to stop anyone since the JFK administration, well, that’s almost correct, too. Last year marked the sixth straight year in which the Owl defense had allowed more than 400 yards and 33 points per game. Over the past two seasons, it’s been even worse, permitting 41 ppg. A year ago, Rice was also one game away from becoming the first team in FBS history to allow 30 points or more in every outing until holding punchless UAB to 23 in a season-ending Owls win.

We really don’t expect that Bailiff will be altering Rice’s Pipino Cuevas-style all offense, no defense approach because he doesn’t have the manpower available on the stop unit to impede even the most-pedestrian of opposing attacks. But he might have enough offense to give the Owls a puncher’s chance against many of the modest CUSA opponents they’ll be facing this season.

We saw a hint down the stretch last season when the Owls scored 42 ppg over their last four outings, including wins in the final two games vs. East Carolina (a 62-38 Rice explosion) and UAB when then-RS frosh Taylor McHargue returned from a shoulder injury that had kept him out of action since early September. McHargue subsequently won the job outright in spring when beating out former Alabama transfer sr. Nick Fanuzzi, who has been prone to mistakes throughout his career. CUSA scouts are high on McHargue, who offers plenty of upside as he draws comparisons to predecessor Chase Clement, the pilot of the 2008 bowl team, thanks mainly to his athleticism and field presence, and he seems quite comfy in Bailiff’s version of the spread. But at least having Fanuzzi and former Miami (Fla.) transfer Taylor Cook, with almost 600 career pass attempts between them, gives Bailiff some experience in the bullpen.

The return of the top five rushers from last season, including do-everything former Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie, who gained 883 YR and caught 39 passes last year, provides proper balance for the spread attack. Indeed, this might be as deep as we ever recall an Owl RB corps, with McGuffie and punishing 6'2, 225-lb. soph Jeremy Eddington, who was ticketed for Purdue before doing a late about-face on signing day, then gained better than 6 ypc on 59 carries and scored 10 TDs as a true frosh last fall while evoking comparisons from some oldtimers to John Brockington. Four returning starters are also back along a versatile and well-coordinated offensive line that has been a bit on the light side lately, although that could change if 340-lb. RS frosh Ian Gray wins the open position at LG. The Achilles Heel of the offense, however, appears to be a WR corps that has lacked a homerun presence since Clement’s favorite target Jarrett Dillard a few years ago. None of the returning wideouts caught more than 20 passes a year ago, although there is hope that ex-safety Randy Kitchens, who briefly flashed plenty of upside last fall before going down with injury, could become a go-to weapon. Aforementioned Miami transfer QB Taylor Cook, a 6'7, 240-lb. specimen, was also experimented at WR in spring work and could see more snaps split out wide this fall. McHargue and Fanuzzi spent most of last season throwing to backs and 250-lb. jr. TE Luke Willson, who caught 33 passes last season, but uncovering a reliable downfield target or two could really shift the spread into high gear.

Unfortunately, the Owls might have to keep scoring 42 ppg to compensate for a defense that can charitably be called suspect the past couple of seasons. As has usually been the case through the decades, Rice, while occasionally attracting capable skill-position talent on offense, has not lured many defensive impact performers to campus, and the best athletes are often moved to the offensive side regardless. The sorts of big plays that could help an undersized stop unit like the Owls’ have also been absent lately, especially a year ago when Rice generated only 14 sacks (ranking a lowly 105th nationally) and was bottom of the nation in tackles for loss at just 3 pg, while forcing only 14 turnovers, good for just 112th in the land. The Owls did a slightly better job vs. the run a year ago allowing “only” 145 ypg and 4.1 ypc, the best such numbers for a Rice defense since Hatfield’s 2002 team, but were torched mercilessly through the air, especially on deep balls, 40 of 81 of which were completed last fall. Only Tulsa allowed more than the 304 ypg permitted by the Owl pass defense, which also recorded only 6 picks (for the second straight year) vs. 34 TD passes allowed. It’s hoped that the return of DE Scott Solomon, granted a medical hardship and a 6th year of eligibility after missing all of 2010 with a foot injury, might provide some relief. Some CUSA observers also believe the other DE, jr. Jared Williams, could emerge as a speed-rush force after hinting at some of those possibilities in 2010 before we went out with an ankle injury in the fourth week.

Generating some sort of pressure has to help the back seven that proved so vulnerable in d.c. Chuck Driesbach’s 4-2-5 looks last fall. Despite starters returning at both CB spots, Driesbach opened up the competition in spring, with RS frosh Bryce Callahan likely to move out one of the incumbents in the fall. And the Owl “D” could certainly use a few more weapons such as hybrid “KAT” (a safety/LB combo in this defense) jr. Corey Frazier, son of NFL Vikings HC Leslie Frazier and last year’s leading tackler with 83.

To no one’s surprise, Rice has been the premier “over” recommendation in the country over the past eight seasons; last year’s 8-4 mark means the Owls are “over” 67-26-1 since 2003!

Summary...Although we need a lot of convincing before believing there has been any meaningful improvement made by the Rice defense, we get the feeling the Owls could be more competitive than usual this fall with an offense that looks capable of trading points with anyone on the schedule, save perhaps the opener at Texas. The attack unit’s 1-2 punch of QB McHargue and RB McGuffie gives Rice at least a puncher’s chance vs. the modest opposition it will confront in this year’s CUSA race, and squeezing into the lower reaches of the bowl mix is a possibility if any improvement can be forged by the stop unit. Again, however, we’ll believe that when we see it.

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