Need to KnowMembers of Conference USA, Rice has been led for the last seven seasons by head coach David Baliff (40-48 at the school). Baliff joined Art Briles (Baylor), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and David Shaw (Stanford) as finalists for the 2013 Bear Bryant Coach of the Year award.
The team's 10-4 record last fall marked the second 10-win season of Baliff's tenure.
The Owls last beat a foe ranked in the A.P. Poll in 1997, and last prevailed in a road game over a ranked squad in 1991.
Team Captains: Named Monday: Senior center Matt Simonette (6'2" 310) and senior SS Gabe Baker (6'1" 220).
2013 in Review: 10-4. The Owls were overwhelmed by major conference foes Texas A&M (52-31 in the season opener) and Mississippi State (44-7 in the Liberty Bowl). In between, Rice won 10 of 12, the highlight a 41-24 upset over Marshall in the Conference USA Championship game.
In a poll of league coaches, the Owls were picked to finish second this season behind North Texas in Conference USA's West Division.
In Common: Both Rice and Notre Dame won five games last fall by seven points or fewer.
Top TalentsFour Owls were named to pre-season watch lists led by junior defensive tackle Christian Covington. The team's best overall player, Covington earned nominations for the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman), Lombardi Award (top lineman or linebacker), and both the Bednarik and Nagurski Award (top defensive player).
Covington has 24 tackles-for-loss in 25 career starts and 10 quarterback sacks. He contributed to two defensive scores last fall, blocking a field goal and deflecting a pass, both returned for touchdowns.
Joining Covington with national recognition are senior Jordan Taylor on the Biletnikoff Award (top wide receiver), senior cornerback Bryce Callahan (Thorpe Award), and punter James Farrimond (Ray Guy Award).
Taylor ranks sixth nationally in career receptions (121) -- the total doubles that of Notre Dame's returning team total. Eight of Taylor's 13 career touchdowns occurred last fall though he's made an impact in consecutive campaigns, posting 826 receiving yards in 2012 and 848 in 2013.
Callahan broke up 10 passes last season and has 26 pass deflections over three seasons as a starter. His 11 career interceptions ranks third among returning BCS players.
Against the Irish SaturdayCallahan teamed with 2014 third-round NFL Draft pick Phillip Gaines last fall to help the Owls finish 36th in pass efficiency defense on a unit that forced 26 turnovers. The loss of Gaines will doubtless hurt the Owls along the back line as Rice played a preponderance of press coverage last season, relying on two standout corners to hold down the perimeter.
In addition to Covington and Callahan, the defense will be led by SS and team captain Gabe Baker (43 career starts) and senior weak side linebacker James Radcliffe (6'1" 220 pounds, 106 career tackles including six for loss). Redshirt-freshman LB Alex Lyons is a player to watch on the weak side vs. Notre Dame's read option.
(A top national talent, Covington will be featured in Friday's Game Preview.)
Offensively, Driphus Jackson takes over at the trigger for graduated senior Taylor McHargue (17 TD, 9 TD). Jackson rushed for 156 yards in a backup role last season and though he can make defenders miss in space, must prove he can be a true dual-threat, i.e., that he can function as a passer against the Irish.
"You watch Driphus work, he's a true student of the game," said Baliff in his season-opening press conference Tuesday. "He's very confident and I think the team is confident in his ability."
The Owls look to replace departed standout Charles Ross (15 TD, 1,280 rushing yards) with the sophomore running back tandem of Jowan Davis (5'7" 200) and Darik Dillard (5'10" 205). The pair combined for seven total scores and 872 rushing yards as the Owls No. 3 and No. 4 rushers last fall.
Ross put forth a monster effort in 2013 and leaves a gaping hole in the Rice attack.
Three offensive line starters return to pave a path and both new starters are upperclassmen, including team co-captain Matt Simonette at center. Simonette missed most of last season with a broken arm.
The aforementioned Taylor is the unquestioned top offensive talent, blessed with athleticism to go with a 6'5" frame and an outstanding pair of hands. Prior to his suspension, cornerback Keivarae Russell had made a reference to Taylor noting during camp he had "a 6'5" receiver" to compete with from the outset.
Baliff noted Tuesday that the wide receivers as a unit have improved greatly as downfield blockers, key to the Owls offensive attack.
Notre Dame was installed as a 24-point favorite in the contest. The suspension of four players including three starters effected a mild change: the Irish -21.