It's hard to know what to expect from the Rice Owls football team. In days gone by, it would have been pretty simple. Just expect them to lose.
But things have slowly started to change over at Rice Stadium. The Owls have actually been to two bowl games in the past four years, under two different coaches, and they actually won the Texas Bowl two years ago.
Think about that, the Rice Owls winning a bowl game. Back in the `70s and `80s, the Owls might have gone through two coaches in four seasons, but there would have been no bowl games, and the thought of just finishing with a .500 record would have been cause for celebration. But no more.
"We have the chance to be a much improved football team," Owls coach David Bailiff says. "We have matured over the last season. We're bigger, faster, stronger. It's one of those where we expect to win. We expect to go to a bowl game. We expect these young men to come out and compete every snap, and play a great brand of football. We're going to keep our expectations always high. And this season, I think we're going to be a real good football team, and we're going to surprise some people."
Talk of improvement is nothing that the Owls haven't heard, or said, before. But the expectation of a bowl game is something that the coaches are trying to drill into the players, and into the fan base. It's something the coaches want the players aiming for every year. Being competitive is just no longer good enough.
"We have great competition all over the field, on the offensive side of the football, on the defensive side, and special teams," Bailiff says. "The competition just makes you improve, and it makes you improve fast. We created a culture. We keep working on the culture here, where we expect to win, and play with great passion for four quarters, and I think these young men are ready to do that."
And those young men are buying into that expectation.
"I believe that we have something special here," running back Sam McGuffie says."[T]hat not everyone knows about, but the people in this building do. I just think with a little a bit more practice, a little bit more coaching, and just a couple of more opportunities I think we're going to be something special here in the near future."
Defensive back Chris Jones says it all ties into the Owls playing as a team, and not playing as separate units, i.e., defense and offense and special teams. And he sees the team getting better, getting stronger. The defense will be better, and he sees the offense being able to return to what it was two seasons ago, when Chase Clement and James Casey were leading the Owls to a victory in the Texas Bowl.
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"For us on defense, the key for us is to get better, get everybody on the same page, and make sure we're working as a unit. Make sure that we gang tackle, make sure that we all run to the ball, make sure that we all know exactly what the call is and what our job is on the defensive side. As a team, in the weight room, we're getting stronger, we're getting bigger, we're getting faster. We're trying to get to it where it -- our offense is back to the way it was when we were a run-and-gun offense and get everything set."
The key is the attitude. If the players buy into the plan, if the players buy into that expectation of the bowl, then it will happen.
"These young men have absolutely committed not to be good, but to be great," Bailiff says.
A commitment to being great was something the Rice Owl football team wouldn't have been able to pull off in decades past. But things are changing. And they appear to be changing for the better.