It's 100 years of Rice football.
This Owls team, like their neighbor and fellow C-USA member Houston Cougars, are stacked on the offensive side of the ball, and putting up points on the scoreboard shouldn't be too much of a problem. But also like the Cougars, the Owls need for their defense to come together and stop opposing teams from scoring. And unlike the Cougars -- who outside of the opening game with UCLA have gone the cupcake route for the out-of-conference schedule -- the Owls face a tough opening four games that will probably make or break their bowl chances before the season is half over.
Aside from opening the season in Austin in a game that no one will be able to see -- UT is giving the game to the Longhorn Network, which has absolutely zero carriage in Texas so far -- the Owls then host Purdue from the Big 10, travel to Waco to face Baylor, then travel to Hattiesburg to face one of C-USA's top teams, Southern Miss. It's not an easy start, and for the Owls to have any chance, the defense is going to have to stop those other teams.
"It's a challenging schedule," Owls head coach David Bailiff said at the start of the camp. "We look forward to going to Austin on September 3 and playing the Longhorns. We're excited to go down there and play. It's a beautiful venue. We turn around and we get Purdue at home at 2:30 in the afternoon. We're excited about 2:30 in the afternoon. Camp here will get us ready to go. It's challenging, but it's something -- if we're going to get this program better, and we are, it's time for us to start proving it and playing in some of those games and winning."
The Owls defense suffered a big hit a couple of Saturdays ago when it was announced that senior free safety Travis Bradshaw was lost for the season because of an injury -- it's a career-ending injury for Bradshaw. And for the Owls to compete this season, they need to not lose any more of their veteran defenders to injury since defensive injuries and inexperience combined to kill the Owls on that side of the ball last season.
Senior nose tackle John Gioffre looks forward to the out-of-conference schedule, noting that teams like Texas and Purdue -- the Owls also face Northwestern in November -- play a more physical, smash-mouth type of football than do the teams in C-USA, which rely more on fancy offenses, tricked-up passing games and finesse.
"You're not going to have a BCS team that's going to put up 50-60 points in a game," he said. "If you don't get control of those fast [C-USA] offenses, that's going to happen to you. I kind of more like the big running schools, the tough BCS schools, because you've got nothing to lose. That's a great opportunity for us. Then you move into conference, it's like, you better know your stuff."
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And for the Owls to have any chance at celebrating 100 years of football with a bowl game, they're going to have to find some way to win some of those out-of-conference games. C-USA might be a weak conference with lots of marginal football programs like Tulane, Marshall and Memphis, but it would still be difficult for the Owls to go 6-2 in conference play, which is what they would have to do to qualify for a bowl should they go 0-4 in out-of-conference play.
If the Owls can take advantage of Texas's inability to find a competent quarterback, and if they can cause Purdue to melt in the heat of a midday Saturday afternoon game in September at Rice Stadium, then the Owls will have a good hope of accomplishing something as they head into conference play. And Gioffre thinks if the defense learns from last season, a season of missed tackles and missed assignments, then things will work out for the best, especially when it comes to C-USA.
"They have these offenses that have basketball playbooks -- we've had a thick playbook in the past, and I think we were over-thinking things," he said. "What we did toward the end of the season, we took a lot of that out and simplified the defense, and I think it worked well."
The Owls are now less than two weeks from starting their 100th season. They're not going to compete for the national title. But they do have a chance, albeit slight, to make it special. They just need the defense to stay relatively healthy and make tackles because the offense will do their job.