2006 Record: (7-6, 6-2)
Coach: David Bailiff (1st year at Rice, 0-0 overall)
Starters Returning: 15 (8 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist)
Offensive Starters Lost: RB Quinton Smith, WR Mike Falco, OL Rolf Krueger
Offensive Starters Returning: QB Chase Clement, WR Jarett Dillard, WR Tommy Henderson, WR Joel Armstrong, OL Lute Barber, OL David Berken, OL Robby Heos, OL Austin Wilkinson
Defensive Starters Lost: DT DeJaun Cooper, DE Courtney Gordon, LB Marcus Rucker, S Andray Downs, S Chad Price
Defensive Starters Returning: DE George Chukwu, LB Brian Raines, LB Vernon James, CB Brandon King, CB Ja'Corey Shepherd, S Andrew Sendejo
Starting Specialists Lost: P Jared Scruggs
Starting Specialists Returning: K Clark Fangmeier
New Head Coach David Bailiff heads to Rice after former coach Todd Graham headed to Tulsa. Bailiff compiled a 21-15 record at Texas State University after coordinating the TCU defense. With the new coach comes a new defensive 4-2-5 scheme and the Owls will need some time to adjust to the new surroundings.
The switch to the spread offense proved extremely effective and it all starts with wide receiver Jarett Dillard. As just a sophomore, the 5-11, 180 pound San Antonio product caught 91 passes for 1,247 yards and an NCAA leading 21 touchdowns. Joining Dillard on the receiving corps are Tommy Henderson and triple-threat Joel Armstrong. Somebody had to get the ball to those quality receivers and Chase Clement was usually called upon. Clement threw 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions. When Clement went down with injuries, Armstrong went back to his original quarterback position and proved to be a solid option.
However, no matter how good the passing has been, the strong point of the men under center is their running ability. Clement rushed for 481 yards and five touchdowns last year and is arguably the best scrambler in the conference. When Armstrong is in the game, the option is in full force and the senior adds another dynamic running and receiving threat for Rice no matter where he is lined up. Often overlooked in the pass heavy, quarterback scrambling offense is running back Quinton Smith. Smith rushed for 1,096 yards and ten touchdowns and added 40 receptions and two receiving trips to the end zone.
If the new look defense can do half as well as the new look offense did last year, Rice (again) will be the surprise of the conference. However, the new look does cause some concerns with the additional spot added to the front line. Tackle DeJaun Cooper and end Courtney Gordon are gone and some youngsters and position switchers will need to fill the void. Senior George Chukwu returns after having a successful 2006 campaign and there is some more experience returning with senior Jonathan Cary and Deitrich Davis, who will move back to the line after playing at linebacker last year.
Brian Raines will be the leader of the linebackers, but competition to start next to the man who ranked third in total tackles in the conference will be fierce. Vernon James started four games last year and Terrance Garmon earned a starting job during the last three games of the year as a true freshman. Chad Price and Andray Downs are gone after starting 41 consecutive games together in the Rice secondary. Yet, the Owls do return Ja'Corey Shepherd and Brandon King, who were both solid corners when they were healthy. Coming off of an All C-USA freshman season in which he started 11 games, Andrew Sendejo is expected to help ease the pain of the loss of Price and Downs.
The Bottom Line:
The defense may have lost too much talent for Rice to make another bowl run. The offense will be good, and fun to watch, but the success and failures of the season will fall on the relatively young defense that has to learn a new system. The Owls are not sneaking up on anybody this year either and keeping momentum through a coaching change is always a challenge. If you are looking for a longshot, Rice is it, but there are too many reasons why 2007 will not be quite as good as 2006.