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TGS 2019 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT CUSA--PART II

                                by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We continue our TGS previews for the 2019 College Football season with a look at the Western half of Conference USA. As usual, teams are listed in their predicted order of finish, with 2018 straight-up, spread, and over/under records included.


He’s found his niche. We’re talking about HC Skip Holtz, whose career looked like it might be at a dead end a few years ago at South Florida, only to be revived at Louisiana Tech (2018 SUR 8-5; PSR 7-6, O/U 4-9). Indeed, the Bulldogs have become an annual fixture on ESPN’s Bowl Week with five straight postseason appearances. Holtz has won all of those, too, including a rousing 31-14 success in the Hawaii Bowl last December, rallying to pull clear of the host Rainbow Warriors in the second half at Honolulu. Though most believe Holtz is perfectly content to see out the rest of his career in Ruston, he has been peripherally mentioned as a candidate for Power 5 jobs in recent years, and it would not surprise us to see Holtz, now 55, get another chance at a bigger locale, and a corresponding paycheck, after earlier successes at UConn ((as the Huskies were getting ready to transition to the old D-I level, now the FBS, in the late ‘90s) and East Carolina, neither a place where winning comes very easily.

Holtz, who adopted the spread offense rather quickly upon his hire at Tech, has featured some high-octane attacks in Ruston, though the Bulldogs flew at a bit lower altitude last year as they struggled often to score points (just 24.7 ppg ranked 97th). Yet the thought remains among many C-USA onlookers that the best is still to come from sr. QB J’Mar Smith, who disappointed a bit io his second year as a starter but reminded all of his upside in the bowl win at Aloha Stadium. Smith, though, needs to become a bit more efficient this fall after tossing just 15 TDs along with his 3160 yards a year ago. He has some established targets, including last year’s breakout star, WR Adrian Hardy, who caught 75 passes good for 1145 yards in 2018. Regional sources also say to watch electric RS frosh “Smoke” Harris, a 5-6 whippet who wowed ‘em in spring and could be a dangerous combo deep threat/kick return threat. The ground game did disappoint a year ago, but Tech runners usually find room to rumble in space, and injuries are partly to blame for no Bulldog reaching 1000 YR for the first time in four years. If sr. RB Jaqwis Dancy can stay healthy, he could be dangerous, given that he’s averaged almost 6 ypc in his career. The OL has experience with six who have started in the past, and will be looking to fit in a couple of jumbo-sized juco transfers, G Antawn Lewis and T Carter Habich.

We actually have less concern about the offense than the D which has performed at a fairly high level the past couple of years, but will be minus its coordinator (Blake Baker, off to work for Manny Diaz at Miami) and NCAA career sack leader DE Jaylon Ferguson (3rd round pick of the Ravens). Vet d.c. Bob Diaco, who had considerable success in the past in the same role for Brian Kelly’s defenses at Cincinnati and Notre Dame (we won’t talk about Diaco’s difficult ride as HC at UConn, where Holtz was a predecessor), knows the ropes but will have to decide if he wants to scale back the aggressive schemes of the Baker defense. Diaco inherits a vet secondary full of ballhawks among its four returning starters led by All-CUSA CB Amik Robertson (nine picks the past two years, the most of any returning player in the nation), who is likely to hear his name called in an upcoming NFL Draft. In spring, Diaco toyed with the idea of moving CB L’Jarius Sneed to a safety spot. Many of last year’s rotation pieces will have opportunities to step into the starting lineup on the line, and still around to clean up is active LB Collin Scott, who lead Tech with 87 tackles to go along with a couple of picks, 4 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss a year ago.

Looking beyond the opener at Texas, the rest of the non-conference slate appears forgiving, as Holtz expects to be a solid favorite vs. Grambling, Bowling Green, and UMass. Though Tech does draw a bit tougher than other West contenders in its crossover games from the East (FIU and Marshall). Still, the West appears up for grabs. And the momentum the Bulldogs took into the offseason after the Hawaii Bowl win has infused the program with new confidence. Holtz has been a bowl regular the past five years and is a safe bet to be in the mix again in the West. A big year from sr. QB Smith, of which he is capable, could catapult Skip into the C-USA title game.

Spread-wise, Holtz has established himself as one of the top underdog coaches in the county; since 2014, La Tech is 16-6-1 getting points, and is 27-12-1 vs. the number away from Ruston.  Conversely, the Bulldogs are apt to play to the level of their competition, and are only 3-9 vs. the line at home in Joe Aillet Stadium the past two years.


We have long known at TGS that some of the best coaches in college football are not necessarily those at the marquee programs. (That applies to college hoops as well, but we digress.) From the days before TGS was published and sorts such as Columbia’s Lou Little, to Vandy’s Art Guepe, to Navy and Virginia’s George Welsh, to Arizona, Purdue and Army’s Jim Young, present-day mentors such as Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Wake Forests’s Dave Clawson, and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, the collection of master coaches might also now include Bill Clark at UAB (2018 SUR 11-3; PSR 10-4; O/U 6-8), whose credentials are so pristine we wonder if he could ever be properly appreciated at an SEC or ACC locale. Clark was a legendary high school coach in Alabama who won back-to-back state titles at Prattville High, won big in his only season at nearby FCS Jacksonville State (the home school of the Talladega Super Speedway), and has kept the Blazers punching well above their weight in Conference USA. And talk about dealing with adversity; as you might recall, UAB shut down its program for two years (2015-16), though with Clark under contract had to keep him on payroll. We knew Clark was good when he got the Blazers to an unexpected 6-6 in his Legion Field debut season of 2014. But for UAB to resurrect after two years off and actually improve defied logic and explanation. The post-resurrection Blazers are 2-for-2 in bowl trips and won Conference USA a year ago in an exciting 27-25 title win at MTSU.

After reviving the program from hibernation two years ago, a little thing like just three returning starters on offense should be no worry to Clark. Especially since one of those returnees is livewire soph QB Tyler Johnston III, who ignited the Blazers down the stretch last season, winning the C-USA title game in exciting fashion at Murfreesboro before passing for 373 yards in the Boca Raton Bowl romp past Northern Illinois. So much is the excitement for Johnston that they’re not even worried at the nearby Dreamland BBQ just up from campus on 14th Ave about the top five receivers all having departed, as sorts such as jr. Austin Watkins and sr. Kendall Parham simply need a chance to play. Opening up the aerial lanes could be the infantry diversion provided by slamming RB Spencer Brown (1227 YR & 16 rush TDs LY), who along with Johnston makes for a mighty 1-2 punch in the backfield. Only sr. C Lee Dufour returns among the starters on the OL, but other rotation pieces from last year have experience and are merely sliding into starting roles this fall.

That UAB could have a top ten defense in both scoring and overall a year ago, not to mention third nationally in sacks (48), just two years removed from the program being on ice, was perhaps Clark’s most remarkable achievement. Only five starters return, but once again, why should that worry the ultra-resourceful Clark? Seniors LB Fitzgerald Mofor (second in team tackles with 75 a year ago) and DE Garrett Marino were impact players last year, and a couple of transfers, 355-lb. juco DT Tony Fair, and ex-Florida and juco LB Jordan Smith (expected to gain eligibility), plus all-name RS frosh DT Fish McWilliams, should provide more options for Clark and d.c. David Reeves. Junior Kris Moll, who excelled at the STAR (rover) position last year, has moved back to LB. The secondary has a bonafide star in jr. CB Brontae Harris, considered perhaps the best shutdown corner in C-USA.

UAB has been careful not to overschedule itself since it resurrected the program in 2017, limiting its exposure to Power 5 foes to one big payday at an SEC locale; this year it’s Tennessee after trekking to Florida and Texas A&M the past two seasons. Moreover, those games have all been later in the season, another shrewd calculation in Birmingham. That should allow Clark to break quickly again vs. Alabama State, Akron, and South Alabama, and the Blazers won’t face the meat of the C-USA until November. It would be no surprise if UAB hits the game at Knoxville at 7-0 on November 2. Clark has dealt with more distractions before than replacing several starters, and no reason to think the Blazers will not contend again in the West and have a chance to defend their C-USA title. It will be a bigger surprise if suitors aren’t knocking at Clark’s door if UAB overachieves again this season.

Our further respect for Bill Clark is reflected in his pointspread prowess. In three years as HC with the Blazers, he’s always had winning spread seasons, and indeed has been one of the best in the country the past two years with a combined 18-8-1 mark vs. the line. Counting the 2014 campaign that preceded the temporary shutdown of the program, UAB is 13-6 as a dog on Clark’s watch, and the past two seasons has fashioned a 10-1-1 mark vs. the number at Legion Field. There’s a lot to like about what has been going on lately with the Blazers!


At the end of last September, we and many others would have bet that HC Seth Littrell would not be at North Texas (2018 SUR 9-4; PSR 4-9: O/U 1-12) in 2019. That’s because Littrell became a coach du jour during the first month of last season when the Mean Green had roared to a 4-0 start, blowing out SMU and Arkansas (on the road at Fayetteville) in the process, and pocket-sized QB Mason Fine ((10 TDP and just 1 pick in first four games) was briefly the rage of the nation after his extra-fast break from the gate. It seemed almost a fait accompli that Littrell would be moving to a Power 5 opening; rumors were flying that Littrell’s wife was scouting real estate in Lubbock in anticipation of an opening at Texas Tech. But UNT would lose momentum, dropping close decisions to La Tech and UAB, and by November was running on fumes, losing at 14 ½-point dog ODU, and barely getting past a struggling FAU and a subpar UTSA, before getting bombed 52-13 by Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl. Littrell’s phone (or his agent’s phone) was not ringing as much thereafter, and when Texas Tech opted instead for Matt Wells (whose Utags would whip the Mean Green in the bowl), Littrell was staying put in Denton for at least another year. Which is perfectly fine for the UNT boosters, who believe their program has a lot to offer because of its locale at the north end of the Metroplex, futuristic new stadium, and chance to be a flagship program in C-USA.

Littrell, a spread devotee and disciple of Larry Fedora, from whose North Carolina staff he arrived at UNT in 2016, should get the Mean Green to their fourth consecutive bowl on his watch, though we have tamped our enthusiasm a bit after the late fade a year ago. The offense, with gunslinger sr. QB Fine (3793 YP and 27 TDP in 2018), should continue to fire away in similar fashion after leading C-USA in scoring at 35 ppg. Fine has many returning weapons with three of his top four receivers from a year ago, led by WR Rico Bussey Jr. (68 catches LY), while All-CUSA RB DeAndre Torrey gained 977 YR and caught 25 passes out of the backfield in 2018. If there are questions on the attack end it will be replacing the bookend tackles on the OL; Virginia Tech grad transfer D’Andre Plantin could fill one of those spots. Littrell and o.c. Brodie Reeder are reportedly ready to speed up the tempo even more this season to take advantage of Fine’s smarts and quick release, and also to perhaps mitigate any inexpedience at the tackle spots. Also keep in mind that UNT outgained every team on its regular-season slate a year ago.

While HC Littrell and QB Fine got a lot of credit for the added exposure for the program last season, much-improved defense also helped the Mean Green get noticed when cutting the point allowance from 35 down to 24 ppg. Coordinator Troy Reffett’s 3-3-5 finally began to resonate, though graduation has removed some key cogs from the defensive operation. A pair of starting corners and two LBs who were the team’s top tacklers from a year ago must all be replaced. But some established playmakers remain; DE LaDarius Hamilton was All-CUSA in 2018 when recording 11 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. There is also quality experience in the secondary, where returning safeties Khairi Muhammad and Taylor Robinson, along with nickel back/LB Tyree Davis, combined for 7 of the Mean Green’s 18 interceptions, which was fifth best in the FBS ranks. How quickly new CBs Cam Johnson and Jordan Roberts step into the breach will be crucial to the D continuing as it mostly was a year ago.

If this is going to be a special year in Denton, we will probably know by mid-September, because the Mean Green has some higher-profile non-conference dates, including the Metroplex battle at revenge-minded SMU, and at Pac-12 Cal. Dana Holgorsen’s Houston pays a visit later in the month, so any success in these non-conference games (where a 2-1 mark would be considered good work) have the opportunity of providing UNT a bigger platform. If QB Fine stays healthy, Littrell certainly ought to get back to another bowl, though any acceleration of his expected departure date for greener pastures elsewhere likely probably depends at least upon having some success in the non-league part of the schedule.

Spread-wise, North Texas was a cautionary tale last season; after the Mean Green became the flavor of the month with the road romps at Arkansas and Liberty last September, and some began to hype Mason Fine as the “Patrick Mahomes of C-USA,” North Texas spreads began to distort too quickly. The Mean Green would become greatly overvalued and covered just one if its last nine games, with spread Ls in its last six, including the New Mexico Bowl drubbing inflicted by Utah State. Also note UNT’s rather stunning 12-1 “under” mark a year ago, again a reaction to “totals” being posted too high thanks to the early-season exploits of the offense.


And then there was one. In fact, it’s been that way for a while for Southern Miss (2018 SUR 6-5; PSR 6-5; O/U 5-6), the last remaining member of C-USA’s football lineup in 1996, the first year of the league. Which, for those who don’t remember, was mostly an amalgamation of the old Metro and Great Midwest Conferences, both basketball loops that didn’t conduct football competition.  (Houston also sought refuge in C-USA after the old Southwest Conference disbanded.)  Most of the original C-USA lineup had been competing as football independents for years, and the new league provided a home of sorts for those long disenfranchised entries. As the years have progressed, however, C-USA has had to re-make its look more than Khloe Kardashian, and the Golden Eagles remain the only original football member. (Note: UAB was part of the original Conference USA alliance, but not for football, waiting until 2000 to join on the gridiron, before shutting down its FB operation for a bit in 2015-16). USM has also often been the flagship program in the league and has held itself to a higher standard, not-so-gently pushing long-serving HC Jeff Bower out the door after 2007, and pulling the plug after just one disastrous 0-12 season under Ellis Johnson in 2012.

Thus, despite holding their own the past few seasons under 4th-year HC Jay Hopson, the Golden Eagles are expecting a bit more, and were an angry fan base in the offseason when bypassed for a bowl despite being eligible with their 6-5 mark (the App State game on Sept. 15 was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence). With seven eligible bowl teams and only six locked-in bids for C-USA, USM was the odd-man out. The natives in Hattiesburg had already become a bit restless when the offense became imbalanced a season ago, prompting Hopson to consider enlisting Art Briles as the play-caller, but a predictable backlash nixed those ideas, and Buster Faulkner has instead been imported from Arkansas State. Faulkner inherits a productive QB in jr. Jack Abraham, who led the nation in completion pct. (73.1) with mostly short throws; Faulkner hopes to develop a better downfield threat, though Abraham (only 15 TDP in 2018) has limited ability to stretch the field. Soph Tate Wadley, who started three games when Abraham was hurt last fall, is another option. The OL was a bit of a mish-mash in 2018, and though seven are back with starting experience, there was plenty of position shifting in spring, and the arrival of several jucos, plus new OL coach Ryan Stanchek, suggests the adjustments up front might continue into the fall. Key wideout Quez Wadkins, who enrolled at a JC in January and summer school at USM to hopefully get his grades in order, is waiting to become academically reinstated after catching a team-best 72 passes with 9 TDs a year ago, and his availability would be a plus. (If Wadkins gets eligible, all 11 who started on offense for the 2018 finale at UTEP would return this fall). But more is needed from the infantry after top RBs Trivenskey Mosley and Steven Anderson had only four runs of 20 or more yards between them last fall.

Given that USM had a top ten defense last season (278 ypg allowed ranked third nationally), the thought around Hattiesburg is that the team should have done better than a mere 6-5. Under first-year d.c. Tim Billings, the Golden Eagles also allowed fewer first downs than any FBS entry. A revamped 2ndary, paced by jucos CB Ty Williams and SS Ky’el Hemby, who combined for nine interceptions, helped the defensive backfield emerge as an unexpected strength. Meanwhile, the stout rush defense ranked sixth nationally (102 ypg), led by honors candidate DE Jacques Turner. Junior LB Racheem Boothe returns as an established playmaker, and since Hopson is a defensive coach by trade, his stop units have reflected that influence. Six starters, plus various other rotation pieces, return on the platoon, so regional sources don’t expect much drop-off. Now, can the offense pull its weight?

Schedule-wise, USM runs a three-week non-league gauntlet, all on the road, on September, with consecutive road games at Mississippi State, Troy, and Alabama, and will only play five home games at cozy Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. In a league like C-USA, however, a team needs to score points to keep pace, and this locale is one of the most demanding in the loop, as mentioned above, having pushed coaches out the door quickly in the past when they haven’t lived up to expectations. Hopson is thus feeling a little heat, which will only intensity with another bowl miss (bowl-eligible or not).

Spread-wise, Southern Miss has often punched above its weight in the past, and under Hopson has continued to be formidable as an underdog, standing 8-3 its last eleven getting points since late in the 2016 campaign. For what it’s worth in the Aug. 31 opener vs. in-state SWAC rep Jackson State, note that the Golden Eagles have covered their three openers during the Hopson era.


Well,
who knows if there is anything to the rumor that Gov. Abbott might be tempted to deal the football team at UTEP (2018 SUR 1-11; PSR 5-7; O/U 7-5) to Mexico in any border dispute involving the adjacent Rio Grande. The Miners have been bad enough to deport the past couple of seasons, having won just once the past two years combined. They were almost seeking volunteers to coach prior to last season, after Sean Kugler (who has landed on his feet as an NFL assistant) and Mike Price (coaxed out of retirement and the golf course to serve as the interim HC) couldn’t notch a win in an unsightly 0-12 debacle in 2017. Taking on the challenge was Dana Dimel, regarded as an up-comer in the coaching ranks a generation ago after succeeding Joe Tiller at Wyoming, then moving to Houston. A subsequent long stint on Bill Snyder’s Kansas State staff might have tempted Dimel to try and replicate at UTEP the resurrection that Snyder authored at K-State when he took a similar thankless job in Manhattan 30 years ago.
 
But a K-State style renaissance isn’t close to being in focus at the Sun Bowl. Partly because Dimel still has a lot of work to do with an offense that was one of the nation’s worst a year ago, scoring barely 17 ppg (ranking 127th out of 130). But after ranking last nationally in both scoring and total offense in 2017, there was at least some improvement. A rash of injuries across the OL did not help things a year ago, and certainly made things tougher for juco transfer QBs Kai Locksley (son of Maryland’s HC Mike) and Brandon Jones. A glass-half-full analysis would suggest that the forward wall gained better depth by forcing more players into action a year ago (indeed, nine who have started remain in the fold), and Locksley, slowed by ankle problems a year ago when he tossed 9 picks and just 3 TDs, should benefit. How much, we’ll see. RB Quardraiz Wadley (627 YR in 2018) has run with some flair in the past when helped just a bit by his blockers. There are no established receivers of note; then again, with the passing game mostly a shambles last season, it was hard for any targets to emerge. Good news? Veteran assistant Mike Canales had cobbled together some serviceable offenses during past o.c. stints at South Florida and North Texas and is a valuable complement for Dimel.

Before the dreaded injuries also took their toll on the stop end last fall, the defense wasn’t half-bad, holding its own against the likes of Tennessee, North Texas, and La Tech. The top four tacklers, however, have graduated. C-USA sources say returning sr. DEs Denzel Chukwukelu and Chris Richardson have potential to emerge as playmakers, and two LBs who missed 2018 due to injury, Jayson VanHook and Dylan Parsee, are now back in the fold. Dimel also thought going the juco route for immediate help was the best option to replenish the CB spots depleted by graduation, and JC transfers Duron Lowe and Robert Conner III might be asked to step in immediately at the corners. As a year ago, lack of quality depth across the platoon looms as a potential problem if another spate of injuries occur. The D also needs to become more opportunistic, as its inability to force many fumbles or picks helped result in a -17 TO margin, second-worst in the nation.

Last season, Dimel was hoping that an opener vs. a Big Sky foe from the FCS level would at least provide a winning start to the campaign. So much for those well-laid plans of mice-and-men; Northern Arizona won in a 30-10 romp. This year, Dimel tries it again with Houston Baptist in the opener before being offered as a sacrifice at Texas Tech. Though we expect Dimel to forge modest improvement in his second year, the fact we’re not picking UTEP at the bottom of the West is only because we think less of a couple of other entries. Read onward to unveil the rest of that C-USA mystery.

Given what Dimel had to work with last season, covering five games against the number wasn’t a bad accomplishment. The Miners also covered 3 of 4 getting 20 or more points, which might be a familiar role again in the fall. Somewhere down the road, however, UTEP is going to need to develop seem sort of an edge as host in the Sun Bowl, which can start with spread success. That hasn’t come close to happening lately at home, where the Miners have dropped 13 of their last 17 vs. the number.


It might be time to fish or cut bait at UTSA (2018 SUR 3-9; PSR 4-8; O/U 6-6) for HC Frank Wilson, who enters his fourth season with the program looking to have lost plenty of steam. Most regional observers know that Wilson did not inherit a bare cupboard from program architect Larry Coker, who also left a livewire QB in Dalton Sturm, all helping Wilson’s first Roadrunner team into the New Mexico Bowl in 2016. But as the era of Wilson (previously a well-regarded LSU assistant and noted recruiter) has progressed, the offense has become more predictable, which at least last year might be putting things a bit mildly. Only Rutgers scored fewer than UTSA’s 14.2 ppg, which suggests there was more to it than mere injuries that slowed down the Roadrunner attack. This has not been well-received in the Alamo city, where the locals are expecting the program, thanks to its location and top facility in the league (the 65,000-seat Alamodome), to begin bossing C-USA.

As noted, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the issues a year ago were on the attack end, which never seemed to recover from touted QB Frank Harris missing the season due to a knee injury suffered in the spring. Harris, a dual-threat lefty, has returned, but to blame the poor Roadrunner offense on the absence of Harris is stretching things a bit far (losing Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence, maybe, but Harris having that much impact?). Harris does look an upgrade over sr. Cordale Grundy (who tossed only 3 TDP in his 220 attempts a year ago), as the soph, who redshirted in 2017 before last year’s injury, can move and possesses a soft passing touch, so there’s reason for encouragement. Especially with the OL back almost en masse (four starters) from a year ago. But there were no big-play threats on offense last season, certainly not in a pedestrian RB corps and a 128th-ranked rushing offense (jr. B.J. Daniels is the leading returning rusher after gaining just 322 yards in 2018). Some of the returning wideouts showed promise last fall as frosh, and true frosh Dywan Griffin (from Wilson’s old recruiting stomping grounds in New Orleans) was the top UTSA addition in the offseason. But something was structurally and schematically wrong with the beyond-bad offense in 2018; unless QB Harris is something special, we’re not sure things will alleviate much this fall.

Given that the defense was on the field too much a year ago and not given much help, the stop unit performed somewhat admirably. The ‘Runners mostly held their own vs. the run in 2018 and return three of four starters along the DL, where DEs Lorenzo Dantzler and Jarod Cater-McLin flashed some star power last fall, and former Dallas Cowboys lineman Nate Newton’s son King is a 295-lb. NT. The cornerbacks also all return in Wilson’s 4-2-5 defensive alignments, and sr. SS Carl Austin is a 2017 starter who is back in the fold after missing all of last season due to injury. Though after LB Josiah Tauaefa (a FA signee by the Giants) left early for the NFL Draft and S Brenndan Johnson departed as a grad transfer to UL-Lafayette, UTSA is minus a couple of key playmakers from a year ago.

The Roadrunners season could take a flying leap off of the nearby Tower of the Americas at HemisFair Park if they can’t beat crosstown Incarnate Word in the opener, because Baylor, Army, and Texas A&M expect to do significant damage in the other out-of-conference games. If Wilson continues to try and reinvent the football wheel by surviving without an offense, his regime might be in imminent danger. Continued slippage will put him on the hot seat, and the non-league schedule makes a run at a bowl bid highly unlikely. The supposed recruiting inroads have to begin paying dividends...soon.

Spread-wise, it’s pretty tough to cover numbers when you can’t score any points.  To that end, maybe UTSA’s four covers last season (which matched the 2017 total) was a pretty neat trick. Another problem with Wilson’s Roadrunners lately is that the lack of scoring punch has made them a risky (and that’s putting it mildly) investment as a favorite; laying points, UTSA was 1-5 last season and 2-9 the last two years combined.


There was a time when Rice (2018 SUR 2-11; PSR 7-6; O/U 6-7) was one of the brand-names in college football. Indeed, early in the TGS era, Jess Neely’s Owls were often ranked and a Southwest Conference contender in the late 50s and early 60s, earning a Cotton Bowl bid in the first TGS season of 1957 with a team featuring a pair of future NFL QBs, Frank Ryan and King Hill (who would be a first pick by the Cardinals in the NFL draft). Neely’s 1960 team was also good enough to make it to the Sugar Bowl where it made a fist of things vs. one of Johnny Vaught’s best Ole Miss sides. But after a Bluebonnet Bowl invitation the following 1961, and after JFK’s famous “moon” speech in September 1962 at Rice Stadium, the Owls would go into a decades-long eclipse and not return to the bowl mix until 2006 under Todd Graham. Thus, when David Bailiff got Rice to three straight bowls in 2012-14, some longtime observers though he maybe should have been given a lifetime contract. Instead, Bailiff was given the pink slip after a subsequent downturn, as administrators turned to Stanford o.c. Mike Bloomgren to pick up the baton.

Trying to emulate the private schools like Stanford, Northwestern, Duke, and Wake Forest that have been able to survive and occasionally flourish with the proper coach, however, is not as easy as it seems. And Bloomgren’s Stanford roots might not translate to Rice, where the power-game that David Shaw has mostly used to good effect on the Farm has not ever been a recipe with the Owls. Bloomgren found out the hard way a year ago when Rice was usually non-competitive, its pair of wins sandwiched around ten mostly-heavy losses. Expected growing pains, or an indicator of an improper fit with Bloomgren?

We’re not sure other than there’s no way the Owls get competitive again until they get their offense in gear. Last year’s measly 18.9 ppg ranked a subterranean 124th nationally, and unless the Owls are running the sort of option they did during the Kenny Hatfield era that at least kept foes off balance, keying the attack around the infantry remains a hard sell at this locale. Especially in a state (Texas) where most of the high schools are now using Texas Tech-like spread offenses. An intriguing situation has developed at QB, where an Ivy League transfer, ex-Harvard pilot Tom Stewart, has a big arm and might rate an edge over RS frosh Wiley Green (who made a few starts last November but didn't lose a year of eligibility) and dual-threat true frosh Jovoni Johnson. Grad transfers from Stanford (C Brian Chaffin) and NC Central (RG Nick Leavitt) might bolster an OL that returns three starters, but there do not seem to be any heavy-duty backs in the RB mix. If there is a strength on the strike force, perhaps it is the established targets for the QBs, as wideouts Austin Trammell and Aaron Cephus combined for 102 catches last year. But if Bloomgren is trying to develop a personality with this offense based upon the ability to move the ball on the ground, he’s facing an uphill climb.

Not since the Neely era has Rice played much defense, either, as the Owls have been traditionally undersized on the stop end. The one area in which Rice was surprisingly not as bad as usual last season, vs. the run, took a hit in the offseason when tackles Roe Wilkins and Zach Abercrumbia decided to transfer out. Bloomgren and d.c. Brian Smith do, however, like the speed on the platoon, which mostly dominated the offense in spring (perhaps more of an indictment on the attack end?). Junior OLB Anthony Epke is a hybrid who can rush the QB or drop into pass coverage, keying a veteran LB group, but in a wing-it league like C-USA, having a pass defense that rankled 125th nationally a year ago is a red flag, especially with new corners having to be introduced into the mix. Moreover, Bloomgren is looking for new kickers this season. The adjustment phase is thus likely to continue, though we’re not sure if there is any reason to hoot, or a sign of light at the end of the tunnel, just yet for the Owls.

If Bloomgren was looking for any relief from his non-conference slate, he’ll be bitterly disappointed. Rice is saddled with three Power 5 foes (though Wake Forest and Baylor visit Houston, and the Texas game will be played down the street at the Texans’ NRG Stadium). Plus what might be the one of the top non-Power 5 entries, Army, the same West Point that laid 70 on Houston in last December’s Armed Forces Bowl. It’s almost like this is a cruel joke on Bloomgren; the last thing a struggling program like Rice needs (on the field, at least) is to play a brutal non-conference slate full of bowl qualifiers from a year ago. Playing a couple of the games at home also denies the program a desired big payday or two. There’s not even a SWAC entry like Prairie View as in last season’s opener to help add a needed W. Into late summer, we don’t see a spot where the Owls might be favored except an outside chance in road games at UTSA and UTEP, and that’s only if both the Roadrunners and Miners are more wretched than they were a year ago. It goes without saying that we’d be surprised if Rice escapes the West basement.

Spread-wise, things weren’t quite as bleak for the Owls last season, though results must be viewed in context. Rice was a respectable 7-6 vs. the number, but only because Bloomgren was able to stay inside (mostly barely) some out-of-space numbers. To wit: the Owls were 5-1 getting 23 points or more, and in none of those games did they come closer than 19 points. Hardly a sign of progress being made in the program, but from our perspective, another reminder that, as Brent Musburger is apt to say these days on VSIN, “It’s all about cashing tickets!”


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