It's doubtful that back in August, when football practice was beginning, people who follow Rice and the University of Houston thought this weekend would be like this. With Rice (5-6) playing UTEP in El Paso for bowl eligibility and a shot at a bowl game. With Houston (4-7) hosting Tulane and hoping to end the season on a high-note.
But that's what is happening tomorrow. Not long after the Cougars finish one of their most disappointing seasons in recent history, the Owls will be taking the field at the Sun Bowl. If the Owls beat the Miners, they will be bowl eligible with a good chance at making one of the lesser bowl games in which C-USA is contracted to send a team.
Even this didn't seem possible for the Owls last month, when they were 1-5 and falling apart. But quarterback Taylor McHargue got healthy. The defense started working on their tackling skills, and the team worked on cutting down on the stupid plays and turnovers. And last Saturday, in a 36-14 win over SMU, the Owls played their best overall game in several seasons.
"To win our sixth one, that's important to us," Rice head coach David Bailiff said on Monday. "A win would show progress in this football program, which is exciting. It would show that not only are we recruiting well, but it helps you recruit. There's a lot to play for, but also we have to play and have fun and not feel the pressures of it. You've got to go down there and execute and have fun."
The Houston Cougars did not figure to be their last game of the season in November. Nor did they plan on finishing the season just playing for pride. Not when they were playing seven games at Robertson Stadium and another game at Reliant Stadium. Not when they opened the season against Texas State or found them playing one last season against the dregs of Conference USA. But as the Cougars discovered: things don't always go as planned.
But the Cougars melted down against Texas State and replaced the offensive coordinator after game one. Head coach Tony Levine wanted to base the offense on running back Charles Sims, generally a good thing, but Sims had difficulties staying healthy, and they tended to abandon this offensive game plan when the team fell behind, which was often. Redshirt sophomore quarterback David Piland often looked lost, and when he did throw toward a receiver, his passes were often off-target.
The Cougars have also been struck by tragedy -- the near death of cornerback D.J. Hayden in a freak practice incident -- and they've been struck by injuries. Players have gone in and out of the lineup due to ineffectiveness.
After an 0-3 start, the Cougars put together of three straight wins where it appeared that they had put all of the pieces to the puzzle together and had righted the ship, to mix metaphors. Then they were destroyed by SMU in a Thursday night that saw the quarterbacks throw multiple pick-sixes, found the kick and punt return games to be worse than what elementary schools play, and left the defense overmatched the entire night.
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Perhaps it was the injuries. Or maybe it was the coaching. Maybe the talent's just not there, after all, replacing Case Keenum, Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier, Bryce Beall and Kevin Sumlin and most of Sumlin's coaching staff. But whatever happened, whatever the cause, the Cougars never recovered after SMU.
"Right now where we are at is finishing the season the right way for our program and our seniors," Levine said on Tuesday. "We have guys who have been in here from five years to two years. We have guys from different backgrounds and have gone through different adversities. Our goal is to send them off with a win in the final game at Robertson."
But Rice doesn't care about the travails of the Cougars. The Owls care only about defeating UTEP. About making to a bowl game for the first time since 2008. And for that to happen, the Owls have to play like they did against SMU. Like they did for most of their game against Tulsa (which they ultimately lost). The Owls don't have to play perfect football against UTEP. But they can't make the easy mistakes. They can't commit turnovers. They can't commit the stupid penalties. The Owls can't let Rice beat Rice.
So tomorrow the Cougars play for pride and the Owls play for a shot at a bowl game. It is doubtful many people thought this would be the scenario to play out on the final weekend of the season. But that's the thing about sports; the only thing that really matters is the result after the game has been played.