Texas, of course, fell to No. 8 in both major wire-service polls following the disheartening loss to top-ranked Ohio State. But if Texas takes care of business, it re-emerges as a respectable suitor for the BCS national championship given the fact that so many of the teams currently ranked in front of the Horns must still play each other (No. 3 Auburn vs. No. 6 LSU, No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 USC, No. 3 Auburn vs. No. 7 Florida, No. 6 LSU vs. No. 7 Florida). Ohio State must still play Michigan, Penn State and Iowa.
Obviously, Texas' national aspirations lost all margin for error last Saturday in Austin. But the Horns can jump back into the mix between now and Thanksgiving weekend by: getting reps -- and more reps -- for both quarterbacks, polishing its vertical passing game, getting some healthy bodies back on defense (especially at linebacker), holding on to the ball while forcing turnovers and remembering that the TE is an eligible receiver.
"We need to help (QB Colt McCoy more offensively," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "We've got to make those plays deep that are there. Ohio State takes a five-yard pass and turns it into a 60-yard play, and we need to stop those type of plays to help take some of the pressure off that position."
Both Rice and Texas are undergoing a makeover, of sorts. Texas coaches speak of their ongoing quest for a post-Vince Young era "offensive identity" in terms of tweaking and finessing. Meanwhile, the Owls' off-season resembled cosmetic surgery after coach Ken Hatfield was shown the door and Tulsa coach Todd Graham was hired to give the sagging program a face-lift. As such, the Owls are transitioning into complexly different scheme under former Longhorn QB Major Applewhite, now in his seventh month as Rice's offensive coordinator.
"They're more multiple now," Co-Defensive Coordinator Duane Akina said. "They've kept a little bit of what they've done well in the past. They'll still spread your defense. You still have to defend a lot of offense."
Otherwise, the two programs are on opposite ends of the college football stratosphere.
The Horns saw their NCAA-leading 21-game win streak snapped last weekend, but they've still gone 25-2 since the end of the 2003 season. Meanwhile, consecutive wins for the Owls would represent a tremendous amount of progress. Rice has lost 12 of 13, but the Night Birds have been noticeably competitive under first-year coach Todd Graham. Rice built a double-digit lead against cross-town rival Houston in the season-opener before falling, 31-30. Then, playing without their starting QB, the Owls hung tough at UCLA before dropping a 26-16 decision. (It was a 63-21 Bruin win last season).
The cerebral-yet-incalculably competitive Applewhite is a tremendous hire for Rice. He is instant credibility in recruiting circles, especially in east Texas and Louisina. Applewhite, of course, is on loan. But his presence there signals a new day for Rice, even though this Saturday should produce the same 'ol results.
The Owls return nine starters but to a brand-spanking new offense.
RS-sophomore Chase Clement, a pass-happy and remarkably accurate prep star, was such an obvious choice to operate Rice's spread offense that he assumed the reign from 10-game starter Joel Armstrong last spring. But Clement broke his right thumb in the season-opener against Houston. Armstrong shifted from WR to QB against UCLA, and that changed the complexion of the offense. The Owls could also look to QB John Shepherd, but the smart money is on Armstrong.
"The problem that we've got, and the problem they've got, is we're not sure who's going to play quarterback," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "We're not sure what we'll see on Saturday. If it's Clement, he can run the option but it's not his No. 1 thing. If it's Armstrong, he can beat you running the option. It's funny -- as many years as we've had to worry about the option with Rice, you would not have thought that this year would have been one of them."
Armstrong played most of the game against UCLA, subbing for Shepherd. As such, the passing game was put on a back burner as the Owls' attack resembled more of the option game it ran under Hatfield.
If Clement sees significant snaps behind center, the Horns expect a team that will operate out of the single-wing, sprinkling in play-action, delays, sprint-outs and zone reads.
"You see a little bit of the Texas offense in their passing game," Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik said, "but they have their own flavor of the things they want to do. In two games, it's hard to tell. But they're a one-back team, and you can only do so many things out of a one-back (set)."
That one-back is senior Quinton Smith, who played his high school ball just north of Austin inCedar Park. Smith led all Rice rushers last season with 900 yards and eight TDs on 175 carries (5.1 ypc).
Rice's top WR is Jarett Dillard, who lead all pass-catchers with 524 yards and five TD on 35 receptions as a freshman last year. (Of course, most of that was on play-action in the Owl's anachronistic triple-option attack under Hatifield. Even so, Dillard "has a lot of speed and he's their go-to guy," Chizik said. Otherwise, the Owls are as thin as Andre Agassi's hairline at WR.
The Owl makeover extends to the defense where Rice is transitioning from its former 4-2-5 to the 3-3-5 scheme that Graham ran at Tulsa. The most difficult transition to respectability is on the defensive side of the ball, where Rice gave up 455 yards and 40.5 points per game last season.
"It's different from anybody we'll play this year," Davis said. "They play with three down-lineman and five linebackers. Most of the time you've got a nose guard and two tackles and three 'backers stacked behind them. And then you have two strong safety kind-of guys. It's an eight man structure, which is not uncommon, but their version of it is different."
The Owls return every starter at DB -- senior safeties Andray Downs and Chad Proce started all 11 games last season -- but replace all three linebackers. If there is a defensive strength, it is at NG where the Owls expect to be stingy up the middle. Graham believes the change in schemes should give the Owls more depth up front.