Rice won't be playing in a bowl game this season. SMU already has the six wins needed to qualify for bowl eligibility. So, for the Owls, the chance to defeat the Mustangs represents the last chance Rice has to end its season on a high note.
Beating the Mustangs also would give Rice a 4-4 record in Conference USA. That's something coach David Bailiff admitted would be quite an accomplishment for his team, at his final weekly press briefing of the season on Monday.
"To finish conference 4-4. To win one on the road. We haven't done that this year," Bailiff said. "It would be nice to get a road win. It's all the reasons in the world to go get this win."
It won't be easy. SMU is always dangerous on offense, with the wide-open passing attack that Mustangs coach June Jones has been running for years at various stops throughout his career. And Rice certainly is vulnerable on defense. The Owls are all but guaranteed of finishing the season among the bottom 20 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in points allowed and total defense. That's something that has happened to Rice during every season of Bailiff's five-year tenure as coach.
However, SMU has struggled on offense in the past month. The Mustangs are averaging a modest 15.8 points per game in the past five contests.
"That's the crazy thing about Conference USA. You look at three weeks ago and we had 677 yards of offense. It's just almost how they unfold," Bailiff said. "If we need to grind it out, you'd like to think if we had to pound the rock we could. We've tried to throw the ball down the field a couple more times but haven't completed them. We haven't got the kind of plays we have been looking for since the UTEP game. But I think we are working on a good game plan right now but they are probably the most solid defense right now in Conference USA."
--SMU needs to be mindful of the wide receiver pass. Rice has run that trick play in each of the past two games with freshman Jordan Taylor doing the throwing. Each time, it's been successful. Taylor completed a 43-yard pass to Andre Gautreaux in the 28-6 loss at Northwestern on Nov. 12, and hit RB Tyler Smith on a 34-yarder last week against Tulane.
--Rice probably wishes this game was being played at home. The Owls went 4-1 at Rice Stadium this season and have won nine straight November home games.
--Ball control was huge for Rice in its 19-7 win over Tulane last week. The Owls did not commit a single turnover while forcing two from the Green Wave.
SERIES HISTORY: SMU leads Rice 47-40-1 (last meeting, 2010, 42-31 SMU).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Rice gave up three sacks last week, something the Owls attributed to having three key linemen miss the bulk of practice heading into the Tulane game. Then, during the contest, Rice's Drew Carroll got nicked up which forced coach David Bailiff and company to mix and match and find a viable front five.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Owls shut out Tulane in the first half, something that has not happened for the Rice defense since the first half of the 2008 Texas Bowl win against Central Michigan. Rice currently ranks among the bottom 10 defenses in the FBS in passing yardage allowed, pass efficiency defense and total yards allowed.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If you talk to the other guys they'll say this is a big game. It's a game we looked at at the beginning of the season, before the season too. It's a big one." -- DE Scott Solomon, on whether SMU is considered a rivalry game for Rice.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Rice at SMU, Nov. 26 -- The Owls head into their regular-season finale trying to upstage SMU and end a two-game losing streak to the Mustangs. This is Rice's de facto bowl game. The Owls also are trying to avoid tallying at least eight losses for the third consecutive season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Keep it tricky. Rice enjoyed some significant success with the Wild Owl formation earlier this month. In recent weeks, the Owls have aired out the offense a bit more and even thrown a few wide receiver passes. SMU arguably has more talent and athleticism, so Rice might need to go pretty deep into its bag of tricks to win this one.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Vance McDonald -- The 6-5 junior enters the 2011 season finale on the cusp of the 1,000-yard receiving milestone. McDonald has 998 yards in his career, and 484 yards on 39 catches thus far this season.
LB Matt Nordstrom -- Nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, Nordstrom has 24 total tackles and a pass breakup through 11 games. The Burlsworth award goes to the best football player in the nation who started his career as a walk-on.
RB Tyler Smith -- Smith heads into his final collegiate game needing 172 yards to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season. Smith has 488 yards and five rushing touchdowns in the past four games. He's also emerged as a receiving threat, with 35 catches for 299 yards on the season and 19 catches in the past three games alone.
--PK Chris Boswell was named the Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Week after making field goals of 51 and 54 yards in the 19-7 win over Tulane on Nov. 19.
--LB Justin Allen had a team-high nine tackles against the Green Wave.
--QB Taylor McHargue did not play last week against Tulane. Coach David Bailiff said on Monday that he'd like to get McHargue, who was replaced as the starter by Nick Fanuzzi three weeks ago, into action at some point in this week's game with SMU.