Due to the show of affection for Conference USA teams such as Marshall and Western Kentucky, the Rice Owls have somehow managed to slip through the cracks.
While the Owls may not be in contention for even preseason C-USA accolades, they can perhaps build off of 2014 momentum and collect a respectable amount of wins this fall. With favorable scheduling and a crafty quarterback at the helm, finishing on the right side of the win column is more than attainable for head coach David Bailiff’s club.
2014 Record: 7-5 (5-3, 2nd C-USA East)
Key Wins: Hawaii, at Florida International
Key Losses: Old Dominion
Players to Watch: QB Driphus Jackson, DE Graysen Schantz
Season in Review
A rocky start to say the least, as Rice would kickoff 2014 with three consecutive losses, one of them to newcomer, Old Dominion. The Owls would subsequently take seven of the last nine, and a bowl victory versus Fresno State to add to the trophy case.
2015 Offensive Preview
The successor to a four-year starter in Taylor McHargue, quarterback Driphus Jackson enjoyed a smooth-sailing 2014 season. Throwing for 2,842 yards and 24 touchdowns, his mobility really sets him apart from the prototypical Conference USA quarterback.
While Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty, Marshall’s Michael Birdsong and Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel are primarily pocket passers, Jackson gave the nation a sneak peek of his athleticism with 401 yards rushing on 121 carries. The numbers aren’t quite eye-popping, but the senior has proven his comfort outside of the pocket. Don’t be surprised to see Jackson use his legs more in 2015.
The running game in its entirety may be a work in progress for 2015, even with junior Jowon Davis cemented as the Owls starter in the backfield. While he rushed for 956 yards and six scores, he’ll have to manage working betwixt an offensive line that returns just two starters from 2014.
Senior wide receiver Dennis Parks will hope for somewhat of a bounce back year, as his junior-year numbers saw a gradual decline from his sophomore season; but with three years experience, he could potentially be Jackson’s main outlet in 2015. Rounding out the corps will be junior Zach Wright (25 catches, 299 yards and 3 touchdowns) and redshirt sophomore Temi Alaka.
It’s not the gaudiest group of athletes, but Driphus Jackson supplies the capability to truly take over a game, if he’s on.
2015 Defensive Preview
Perhaps we can revisit the ‘lucky number’ game once more.
Rice collected its seven wins when it held its opponents to under 24 points. On the other hand, the five losses endured throughout the season, they surrendered an average of 49.6 points per contest on defense.
Sophomore defensive end Graysen Schantz raised some eyebrows as a freshman in 2014 and appears primed for a breakout season within the front four. He’ll have to step up considering Rice is short-handed with three senior starters departing from the defensive line.
Senior safety Zach Espinosa has seen action in 24 contests the previous two seasons and will head a secondary that carries a vast amount of underclassmen in V.J. Banks and Destri White. J.T. Blasingame will also be a name to keep an eye on, as he will secure the DIME slot in a savvy 4-2-5 defense.
The ‘Texas gauntlet’ as I like to call it, will feature road games versus Baylor, North Texas and the Texas Longhorns, after Rice meets with Wagner to open up the 2015 campaign.
Given the Owls can manage a 2-2 clip at that point, they’ll have the luxury of welcoming Western Kentucky, Army, Louisiana Tech, Charlotte and Southern Mississippi. Within that mix is the opportunity to rob a couple of road games versus Florida Atlantic, Texas El-Paso and Texas San-Antonio.
Rice may not be a team that emerges out of nowhere and crowns itself a champion in 2015, but if I’m David Bailiff, I’m quite okay with another seven-win season and bowl eligibility.
With that being said, I’ll mark Rice at 7-5 once more in 2015; however, Bailiff can once again fly under the radar and lead his team to a postseason victory.