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100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 100 Rice Owls

Today marks 100 days from the kickoff of the 2012 college football season.

Accordingly, over the next 100 days Rant Sports will be previewing the top 100 teams in country.

Today, the Rice Owls.

After enjoying one of the top finishes in school history in 2008 (10-3), things have been all downhill for the Owls.

Coach David Bailiff is on the proverbial hot seat entering the 2012 season after leading the Owls to a 10-26 record since the successes of 2008, and judging by the number of returners and challenging schedule, will have another tough task on his hands this fall to turn things back around.

Impact Players

Offense

On the offensive side of the ball, Rice will turn to their tight ends to carry the load in a passing game which promises to be the focus on Saturdays.

Vance McDonald and Luke Wilson both have sure hands and could be NFL-bound depending on how prolific they are able to be in getting into space, and making themselves consistently available for junior signal-caller Taylor McHargue.

McHargue played in eight games during the 2011 campaign, tallying 1,196 yards of total offense, and showing flashes of brilliance both behind center and on his feet. At one point last season, McHargue threw 133 passes without an interception, showing the type of accuracy which will be essential to an offense that will lean heavily on the pass in 2012.

As has been the case for a few years now, Rice will turn to senior do-everything wideout/running back Sam McGuffie to make the big plays, keep them close to more talented teams, and bounce back from an injury-riddled 2011 season.

Rice’s top returning rusher is senior Turner Petersen, who carried the ball 102 times for 511 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011, but doesn’t promise to be a huge factor apart from games where Bailiff decides to go with a clock-control strategy.

In short, the Owls will go as far as the passing game and a healthy McGuffie can take them.

Defense

If there’s ever been a running knock on the Rice program, it’s their inability to defend against the pass. 2012 should show some improvement in this respect with the emergence of cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Phillip Gaines, but there are still substantial strides to be made among the defensive unit as a whole.

As a unit, the Rice defense gave up a total of 462.1 yards per game last season, 287.7 of which came through the air. With an improved secondary, the Owls should have a better chance of staying in games in 2012 which quickly eluded them due to poor protection in 2011.

Cameron Nwosu will anchor the Owls defensive backfield and could become one of the nation’s best surprises in 2012. The Klein Forest, Texas native was sixth in Conference USA in 2011 with 108 total tackles and returned two fumbles for touchdowns.

Due to the youth of the 2012 defensive unit, it will be essential for Nwosu to establish himself as the unquestioned leader for the Owls and lead by example for the defense to have a chance at success.

Schedule

The early pre-season provides games for the Owls which could be either stumbling blocks or opportunities to gain momentum. Rice opens with the UCLA Bruins at Rice Stadium on August 30 before making a trip to visit the Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence the following weekend.

Even a split of these two games– with a win over Kansas being the more valuable– could propel Rice into a shot at bowl eligibility later in the season when they are deep in the heart of Conference USA play.

A .500 finish in 2012 would be a strong one for Rice and could potentially be enough to convince the school’s athletic administration to give head coach David Bailiff one more chance.

Anything less will likely mean a coaching change and an overhaul of the Rice program.

Kris Hughes is the College Football Network Manager for Rant Sports. If you enjoy his takes, you can follow Kris on Twitter, check out his personal Facebook page, or stop by his personal Tumblr page.