Owls Playing For Record-Setting Season

For one team achieving a bowl game after a tough season was the ambition. For the other…Memphis was their ultimate ambition all along. "That was the goal for Rice football," Rice Coach David Bailiff said. "We wanted to go to the Liberty Bowl."

And here the Owls are, facing Mississippi State in Tuesday's 3:00 matchup at the Liberty Bowl Stadium. It is the third bowl appearance for Rice under Bailiff, but the first as Conference USA champions. And, playing for a program-record 12th victory in a season.

No wonder eighth-year coach Bailiff could say at Monday's final pre-bowl press conference "It's been a great year for Rice, and this senior class." A year that could be even better if the Owls exit the field with a SEC scalp to their credit. It's an ironic touch that Rice (11-3) opened their regular schedule against the SEC West, giving Texas A&M a fine 52-31 fight at College Station.

Now it West Division member and another maroon-and-white clad club on the other sideline. Not, Bailiff said, that his program is playing up the ‘beat the SEC' angle. Rice can stand on its own achievements and conference championship credentials in this matchup.

"Really we just want to play," Bailiff said. "Conference affiliations, we're very aware of what the SEC stands for. But young men are young men and just want kickoff to come. It's Mississippi State." A State team that has made an impression, on film and on the hoof.

Size, Bailiff said, is what literally stands out at first look. "They are a big, long, good-looking SEC football team. When we went to (AutoZone Park) for the rib eating contest and the signing contest, you saw the size of the young men walking in. They're going to look good, and in the uniforms even better."

Speaking of which, Rice intends to show a little bowl-game flash themselves with shiny new blue helmets. It was supposed to be a game-day unveiling of sorts, but "It didn't stay a secret!" Bailiff said. "But we let them put them on yesterday, didn't have the decals but it's exciting to put on new helmets. They were fired up."

Flash isn't something Coach Dan Mullen has seen from Rice in his own scouting; instead the Mississippi State staff has consistently commented on how physical, disciplined, and consistent the Owls are on both sides of the ball. This isn't a surprise though. Not only do the Owls draw from some of the richest recruiting grounds in college football, but Bailiff has brought them success…which has led to better development and better recruiting and so on and on.

As Bailiff said, the current team was recruited based on impression of progress in 2006 and '08 bowling seasons. All without bending the university's proud academic standards, too. Bailiff said the pool of available and qualified talent has grown and Rice has taken advantage.

"Because there are a lot more young men with scores that makes them admissible to Rice. That has helped attract a higher quality student-athlete." High enough that at one point this fall there were ten Owl alumni on NFL contracts. And the current team has posted a 100% graduation rate.

More will be joining those lists soon because this is truly a senior squad, with 23 total upperclassmen and 19 fifth-year seniors. They've won 15 of their last 18 games, including last year's Military Bowl over Air Force. So all that was left was to take the CUSA crown. Well, almost all.

"One of this classes goals was to leave a mark, and I think they have," Bailiff said. "We have one goal left, we want to win the bowl game."

Doing so means beating a Bulldog team that has put a lot of things together down the 2013 stretch. Bailiff has watched how State went from September struggles to November success and has a professional appreciation of how it happened.

"You put the video on, and what a great job Coach Mullen has done. I'm an outsider looking in, but it looks line one of the finest coaching jobs in the country this year with all the injuries. They're a team with a lot of momentum and a team that believes in itself." All the more, Bailiff said, when Dak Prescott is in the game.

"I was watching the Egg Bowl (yes, he used the correct title) even before we knew we'd play Mississippi State. I watched what that (Prescott's fourth quarter entrance) did to that stadium, so you can tell he's an inspirational leader and the whole team revolves around what he does. That jumped out to me as a college football fan."

Well, that and something else that jumped out of the speakers. He heard the cowbells of Scott Field in fully cry. Bailiff appreciates the irony that the CUSA champions and designated home team will feel more like visitors Tuesday with the expected influx of bell-ringing Bulldog fans.

"Coach Mullen has promised me they're going to ring responsibly," Bailiff said. Which, he added, was piped-in at Rice practices during bowl camp. "There's an app for that, would you believe it?!" he quipped. "After ten minutes at practice, you've heard them enough."

The Owls can control the volume in one way, though, and that is take control of the game. Which is far easier said than done. Though, Bailiff said, the approach is pretty basic in this matchup. "We have to play extremely smart football and be fundamentally sound."

"We've got to tackle rally well. You have to stop the run game, if you can't control that you're going to have a hard time in this game. We need some takeaways defensively, you really have to win the turnover battle. And I think field position is going to be critical in this game."

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