For the second straight year, the coaching carousel made a stop deep in the heart of Texas, but this time around, it left the program feeling a little dizzy. Bobby Petrino bolted Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons setting off a chain of events that left Rice without head coach Todd Graham just a year after he was hired and days after his contract was extended through 2012. It was a devastating and bitter blow for a long-suffering program that had just begun to establish some footing.
Head coach: David Bailiff - 1st year (former head coach at I-AA Texas State)
Returning Lettermen: Offense-23, Defense-23, Special Teams-2
Lettermen Lost: 17
Ten Best Players
1. WR Jarett Dillard, Jr. (28/401, 4 td)
2. LB Brian Raines, Jr. (41 tackles, 3 sacks)
3. QB Chase Clement, Jr. (186-102-8, 1,162 yards, 55 percent completion percentage, 8 td)
4. OG Robby Heos, Sr.
5. NG George Chukwu, Sr. (14 tackles)
6. WR Joel Armstrong, Sr. (2/11, 0 td)
7. SS Andrew Sendejo, Soph. (41 tackles, 3 interceptions)
8. CB JaCorey Shepherd, Soph. (29 tackles)
9. OT Lute Barber, Sr.
10. LB Terrance Garmon, Soph.
2007 Schedule - Currently: 1-6/1-1 C-USA
Sept. 1 Nicholls State LOST 14-16
Sept. 8 at Baylor LOST 17-42
Sept. 15 Texas Tech LOST 17-42
Sept. 22 at Texas LOST 24-59
Oct. 3 at Southern Miss WON 31-29
Oct. 13 at Houston LOST 48-56
Oct. 20 Memphis LOST 35-38
Oct. 27 at Marshall
Nov. 3 UTEP
Nov. 10 at SMU
Nov. 17 Tulane
Nov. 24 Tulsa
After last year's unlikely turnaround and first bowl invite in 45 years, there's no doubt Graham left Rice in better shape than when he arrived, but was it long enough to have a lasting impact? The job of continuing what Graham started now belongs to former Texas State coach David Bailiff, who's spent his entire life playing or coaching football in the state and knows the unique landscape of Texas extremely well. He's retained just one assistant from last year and realizes he'll have to earn the trust of a group of kids that feel betrayed by their last coach.
Keeping the momentum going at Rice will be no small chore because once you get beyond wide receiver Jarett Dillard, the talent and depth at the program is still a cut below Conference USA's top teams. The Owls overcame a brutal non-conference schedule and injuries to quarterback Chase Clement to go 7-6 because they mastered winning close games and finishing strong, products of conditioning and faith in Graham's blueprint for the team. If Bailiff is going to get Rice back to the postseason, he must find a way to leverage those same intangibles because its deficiencies, especially on defense, won't be so easy to hide.
What to watch for on offense: New offensive coordinator Tom Herman is keeping the spread offense that helped transform Clement into a prolific passer and Dillard into one of the country's most unstoppable receivers. Dillard has evolved into the face of the program, catching a touchdown pass in 15 straight games, but needs Clement to stay healthy because the alternatives can bring the offense to a screeching halt. A replacement needs to be found for Quinton Smith, last year's 1,000-yard rusher, who quietly gave balance to the offense and helped the passing game flourish.
What to watch for on defense: The new staff will tinker with the defensive alignment, but the results are going to be similar to last year, when Rice finished last in the league in yards allowed. The Owls will switch from the 3-3-5 to the 4-2-5, putting greater emphasis on developing defensive linemen, the one position that took the biggest hit from graduations since last year. The new system features a high-pressure package in which every play looks like a blitz, but selling out too often will expose weaknesses in the secondary. Brian Raines, an undersized but active linebacker, is back after leading the Owls in tackling in 2006. Owls allowing 43.3 points per game and 521 yards per game on defense.
The team will be far better if: The run defense can somehow plug holes in the middle of its line. The Owls were perpetually beaten at the point of attack last fall, a situation that has the potential to worsen without top tackles DeJuan Cooper and William Wood. If opponents are able to control the clock and play keep-away with the Rice offense, it'll be a down year for the school. Rice allowing 182 rushing yards per game.
The Schedule: With four road dates in a five game stretch, the schedule is brutal early before easing up late with three home games in the final four. The Owls not only have to go to Texas to go along with games against Big 12 South programs Baylor and Texas Tech, but they have to start off the conference year on the road against the league's two best teams; Southern Miss from the East (won 31-28 in Hattiesburg, Miss.) and Houston from the West (lost to the cross-town rival, 48-56, blowing a big early lead). After playing the Cougars, the final five games in a row are against teams that didn't go to a bowl.
Best Offensive Player: Junior WR Jarett Dillard. A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award after an unstoppable 91 catch, 1,247-yard, 21 touchdown season, Dillard will be a star once again despite being a marked man all season long. He's not huge at 5-11 and 180 pounds, and he's not a blazer, but he catches everything thrown his way and has a terrific nose for the end zone. So far this year, Dillard has 28 catches for 401 yards and has scored four touchdowns. His average is 14.3 yards per catch.
Best Defensive Player: Junior LB Brian Raines. The team's leading tackler with 118 stops to go along with 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, Raines wreaked havoc from the weakside making plays all over the field. He has good size at 6-1 and 220 pounds and decent quickness. Now he has to do more against the pass and force more big plays. Raines is tied for the team lead in stops with safety Andrew Sendejo with 41 tackles. Raines has three quarterback sacks this year.
Key player to a successful season: Junior CBs Brandon King and Ja'Corey Shepherd. Rice got torched by every passing game with a pulse, and some that were on life support. Blame the relative inexperience of the top corners, King and Shepherd, but that won't be an excuse going into this year. Without star free safety Andray Downs to rely on, these two will have to make a big difference. Currently, however, Rice is allowing 339 yards per game passing, 182 yards rushing and 521 yards per game in total defense, last or nearly last in all defensive categories in C-USA. The Owls allow 43.3 points per game. Shepherd has 29 tackles and no interceptions, while King has 21 tackles and one pick. Sendejo leads the team with three ints.
The season will be a success if: Rice wins six, but currently team is 1-6 entering Marshall game. There is little chance Rice gets six wins unless they win at Marshall, beat UTEP, win at SMU, and it might come down to the final two home games against Tulane and Tulsa to get to six this season. The new coaching staff has enough returning experience to hope for a decent year, but it's going to take a few big upsets, and a nearly flawless home record (currently 0-3), to even think about going bowling.
Key game - Oct. 13 at Houston: Rice can blow the league opener at Southern Miss, but it needs to use the ten days off to follow to figure out how to get past Houston or hopes of winning the West title will be shot. At the very least, the record will probably be no better than 1-4 before getting on the bus to play the cross-town rival. A win is a must to get in the bowl hunt. Jumped to big early lead against Cougars, then lost 48-56.
2006 Fun Stats:
- Rice was outscored in all four quarters.
- Fumbles: Opponents 30 (lost 18) – Rice 20 (lost 7)
- Penalties: 110 for 924 yards – Rice 75 for 557 yards
Rice averages only 95 yards rushing while allowing almost double that (182) on defense.
The Owls has 21 sacks to date, 1 per every 10 attempts; The Herd has only eight sacks, 1 every 30 plays.
Marshall and Rice allow right around 45 percent on third down conversions; Offenses average 24.7 RU/21.6 MU points per game while giving up 43.3 RU/37.4 MU.
Both teams lost to I-AA teams, Rice 14-16 to Nichols State, Marshall 35-48 to New Hampshire.