This is the 101st season of Rice football, and the Owls hold a 436-564-32 record over their first 100 years. John F. Kennedy famously described the challenge of winning at Rice during a speech at Rice's football stadium:
"But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
Yes, it is hard to win at Rice. They are a great academic school competing on the field and in the recruiting arena against numerous in-state institutions with more famous football programs. Athlon doesn't predict this season will be much easier for Rice, and forecasts a 3-9 season this year.
I'll break down the coaching staff and offensive side of the ball after the jump.
David Bailiff is in his 6th year as Rice's head coach. He posts a career record at Rice of 23-38, including 18-22 in conference. His lone bright spot was 2008, when Rice went 10-3, won their conference, and beat Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl. Unfortunately for the Rice contingent, he followed the 2008 season up with 2-10, 4-8, and 4-8 campaigns. His contract is also expiring at the end of the year, and there is a sense that his future at Rice will hinge on the outcome of this season.
Offensively, John Reagan enters his second season as offensive coordinator and third season at Rice after a fairly productive season on the ground but struggled through the air. His background is in coaching the offensive line and running game, and Rice runs a pistol veer scheme similar to what UCLA ran the past two seasons. In fact, their offensive numbers were quite similar to UCLA's. Rice was 67th in the nation last season in rushing, gaining about 150 yards per game. UCLA was 37th with 178 yards per game. They were nearly identical to UCLA in the passing game, ranking 82nd in the nation with 197 yards per game compared to UCLA's 198 yards per game, which ranked 81st. In total offense, Rice was 91st and UCLA checked in at 72.
Defensively, Rice was a nightmare. They ranked 111th in total defense, 112th in passing defense, 88th in rushing defense, and 98th in scoring defense. Rice let go of defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach and replaced him with Chris Thurmond. Thurmond has a history in coaching the secondary, and purports to bring a sense of aggressiveness to the defense. Scheme wise, the Owls run a 4-2-5 which Bailiff ran while serving as Gary Patterson's defensive coordinator at TCU.
Rice is undergoing a quarterback battle between Jr. Taylor McHargue (6'1 205 lbs.) and RS Fr. Driphus Jackson (6'0 200 lbs.). McHargue has started 13 games, but really struggled last year, completing only 57.5% of his passes with a YPA of just 6.2. His rushing stats may be poor, gaining just 124 yards on 82 attempts for a 1.51 YPC, but scouting reports indicate that he is a quality runner with great feet. That said, his running ability pales in comparison with Jackson.
Jackson was a 3* recruit out of high school as a projected wide receiver, but committed to Rice to play his high school position, quarterback. He is one of the fastest players on the roster, but likely needs more seasoning in the passing game.
McHargue appears to hold the edge in winning the starting job, at least to start the season, but Jackson could be employed in packages.
Gone is leading rusher Tyler Smith, who carried 155 times for 860 yards and 5 touchdowns last year. He'll be replaced by a fairly deep stable of big backs, including Jr. Turner Petersen (6'2 220 lbs.), Sr. Charles Ross (6'1 230 lbs.), and Jr. Jeremy Eddington (6'2 230 lbs.). Rice will also use Sr. Sam McGuffie (5'10 200 lbs.) in certain situations, although he has been officially moved to the slot.
Petersen has played defensive back, wide receiver, and running back at Rice, and is also the quarterback in the "Wild Owl" sets Rice uses. He managed 485 yards and 5 touchdowns last year on 102 carries as Smith's primary back-up.
Ross had a good 2009, gaining 491 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns, but simply hasn't recaptured his old form. After getting only 19 carries in 2010, he only played in four games in 2011 before suffering a season ending injury. Eddington suffered a similar decline to Ross. In 2010, he managed 365 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on just 59 carries. In 2011, he played in every game, but had just 25 carries for 62 yards. Part of the decline of Ross and Eddington is due to the emergence of Tyler Smith, but the Owls definitely need the two to regain their own form in order for the offense to keep running.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
McGuffie's move to the slot gets the most attention here. After gaining fame out of high school for his acrobatic playing style, McGuffie committed to Michigan and had a fairly productive season under Rich Rodriguez before transferring back to his home state. He sat one year before coming on strong in 2010, gaining 883 yards on the ground and 384 through the air and 9 touchdowns. Last year, he only played in 7 games due to nagging injuries, touching the ball only 47 times. In moving McGuffie to the slot, the thought is that he can get the ball in space more often and avoid some of the constant contact that running backs usually get. He'll also likely receive a decent number jet sweeps and bubble screens to get him on the edge as part of the running game.
At the other slot position, Rice uses a "Y" as a tight end, similar to how Coach Mazzone will use in UCLA's offense. Rice has a pair of food athletes at the position in Sr. Luke Wilson (6'5 250 lbs.) and Sr. Vance McDonald (6'5 260 lbs.). Wilson is a good athlete; he's a former hockey player and is currently in the Toronto Blue Jays system. He caught 29 balls for 313 yards and three touchdowns last year, which was second in all three categories to his backup, McDonald, who caught 44 balls for 541 yards and 5 touchdowns. Both are considered NFL prospects and pose matchup problems in the passing game.
On the outside, Rice will start Jr. Donte Moore (6'0 180 lbs.) and So. Jordan Taylor (6'5 210 lbs.). Moore is the burner of the receiving corps, and his scout profile lists his 40 yd. dash time at 4.32. He may be slight, but that is a very fast time. He only caught 13 balls for 109 yards last year after catching 16 for 160 in 2010. He'll be backed up by Jr. Andre Gautreaux (6'0
Where UCLA should really have an advantage is in the trenches. Rice's most seasoned offensive lineman is So. RG Drew Carroll (6'4 280 lbs.), who started 10 games last year. At the other guard spot, mammoth So. Ian Gray (6'8 340 lbs.), who started 8 games last year. The two might be young, but they are probably the strength of the offensive line.
The other three spots represent fairly large question marks along the line. The center spot is manned by Jr. Nate Richards (6'4 305 lbs.), a transfer from Central Arkansas via Trinity Valley Community College.
At the tackle spots, Rice will start Jr. Jon Hodde (6'7 300 lbs.) at left tackle and RS Fr. Caleb Williams (6'3 275 lbs.) at right tackle. Hodde is a bit injury prone, having missed time during the each of the past two seasons, but has great size for the left tackle position.
That concludes Part I of the Rice Owls preview. Feel free to fire away with any additional comments and be sure to check back in for Part II of the preview which will take a closer look at Rice's defense and special teams.