The Rice Owls have come on strong over the last year and a half under head coach David Bailiff, winning 15 of their last 19 games. Last season, they went on a tear after a slow start, winning eight of their last nine regular season games to get into the Conference USA Championship game where they beat the Marshall Thundering Herd 41-24. They finished the year with a strong 10-4 record (7-1 in C-USA) and will be looking to keep things rolling into 2014.
But they face some major turnover at key positions on both sides of the ball. This season will be a major test of the sustainability of the Rice program under Bailiff and will push some young, intriguing players into prominent roles. How well the Owls’ inexperienced players fill the holes this fall will go a long way in determining just how competitive Rice will be in the C-USA title race this season.
Under center, Rice must replace two-year starter Taylor McHargue, who was a major part of the offense. Junior Driphus Jackson has been the primary backup and showed great promise as a mobile, dual-threat quarterback. While he struggled to throw the ball last season, completing just 31.3 percent of his throws for 50 yards and an interception, he still showed excellent mobility, averaging 8.1 yards per carry with a touchdown. Rice will hope he shows more of his freshman form when he completed 56.5 percent of his throws for 672 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions.
While Jackson’s passing ability is a concern, the experience at receiver should help ease his transition. The team’s top two receivers from 2013, Jordan Taylor and Dennis Parks, both return and provide some big-play ability on the outside. Taylor led the team in 2013 with 55 receptions for 848 yards and eight touchdowns while Parks added 29 receptions for 508 yards and three touchdowns. Also look for sophomore tight end Connor Cella to see an expanded role after catching 13 passes for 130 yards and touchdown in 2013.
But the focus of the Rice offense is the running game and they will need some new stars to step up there. The Owls lose their top two rushers from last season with 1,000-yard rusher Charles Ross and McHargue moving on. In their place, the team will look to Jackson and a rotation of young backs who flashed excellent ability in relief last season. Jawon Davis averaged 5.0 yards per carry as he racked up 476 yards and three touchdowns while Darik Dillard chipped in 396 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 4.8 per carry while both were freshmen in 2013.
The defense took some major steps forward in 2013 but have some key pieces to replace for this season. On the defensive line, the Owls return plenty of beef as both their starting defensive tackles return led by Christian Covington, who led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss last season in addition to his four sacks and 48.5 tackles. But Rice loses both of their starting defensive ends and will have to plug in some majorly inexperienced options and hope they are up to the challenge.
At linebacker, the team loses just one major contributor in starting SLB Michael Kutzler, who led the team with 74 tackles with seven tackles for loss, two sacks, and an interceptions. Last season’s starting WLB, James Radcliffe, returns for his senior season, however, looking to build off a solid 2013 seasons where he recorded 47 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and four passes defended. Someone will have to step up to replace Kutzler, however, and his ability to make plays in the backfield.
The secondary should be the strength of the Rice defense in 2014 with three of five starters returning this fall. Despite a somewhat lackluster pass rush up front, the Owls still made a ton of plays against the pass last season with returning safeties Julius White and Malcolm Hill along with cornerback Bryce Callahan combining for 10 interceptions and 27 passes broken up last season.
The Owls have a schedule that sets them up for another slow start to the season with an opportunity to finish with a flourish. They open the year with back-to-back road games against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Texas A&M Aggies that will likely put Rice into an early 0-2 hole. But their final 10 games of the year pose no major, insurmountable favorites that Rice will have to overcome.
How they fare in C-USA play may come down to back-to-back games in November against the UTSA Roadrunners and a road game against Marshall. If they can win one (or both) of those games, they’ll set themselves up very well for a return to the C-USA title game this December. To do that, they’ll have to get their new starters up to speed and rolling, which they’ve shown they can do each of the last two years.
Rice is an intriguing team that should contend once again in the conference race if they survive September healthy and with their confidence intact. If the Owls can answer some of the questions about their new starters at quarterback, running back, and on the defense, look for them to win around eight games and secure their third straight winning season for the first time since 1948-50.