The 2-0 Houston Cougars face the 1-1 Rice Owls at 2:00 p.m. tomorrow at Reliant Stadium. To the victor goes the Bayou Bucket, and the victor might get to hold onto the trophy for a long while because this is the last scheduled game of the series. Now that both teams are in different conferences, the little matter of finding room on the calendar for out-of-conference games becomes a bit of a problem.
Both schools are saying the right things about playing each other in the future. But saying things doesn't quite match the actions they're taking. Actions like filling up out-of-conference schedules so that it becomes almost impossible to play the other. Then again, it's Rice and UH and it's questionable whether the fans of those schools really care about playing each other.
So here's to the possibly last-ever edition of the Bayou Bucket. May the winner keep what Rice linebacker Michael Kutzler calls the "beautifully ugly trophy" for a long time. And for anybody who actually cares about the game, here are a few things to watch for during the game.
BATTLE OF KICKERS
Rice's Chris Boswell and Houston's Richie Leone are two of the best kickers in college football. Both have keyed their teams to victories this season, and both have the ability to kick field goals from long distance. They're also both accurate, and that's important because both offenses have a bit of a tendency to stall once reaching the red zone.
Winning or losing this game could come down to whether either misses a kick, or which kicker gets the most opportunities. Boswell is nearly automatic from long range -- something not too often seen from kickers at Reliant Stadium. But Leone has also shown confidence from all distances this season.
THE RUNNING GAMES ARE TRIUMPHANT
Houston still has the reputation of a pass-first spread offense relying heavily on finesse. But people who think that haven't seen the Cougars this year. The running game has excelled, with a big line making holes for the UH backs. Kenneth Farrow is nursing an injury and is supposedly a game time decision. But he shares the backfield with Ryan Jackson, and Jackson's rushed for 100-plus yards in both games this season. He's smaller than Farrow, but Houston head coach Tony Levine calls him explosive. And the next guy off the bench has been a compact walk-on called Justin Hicks who is probably nearing that status where he should be getting a scholarship.
Rice counters with Charles Ross, a senior running back who has his had way so far this season with the defenses of Texas A&M and Kansas. He's gone for more than 100-plus yards in both games, and he's scored four of Rice's five touchdowns. Ross looks like the prototypical big running back, and he's got a power running game. But he's quick once he gets into the open. He's also got decent hands and can be dangerous when catching short passes.
WATCH THE QUARTERBACKS
Nominal UH starter David Piland will miss the game due to health issues arising from a concussion he suffered in the Temple game. Freshman John O'Korn will get the start, but this will not be his first game, having seen extensive action in both UH games this season. And while he might be a freshman, Levine says that the Cougars learned from the Case Keenum situation several seasons ago and they've been making sure the back-ups get extensive prep work.
"It's not like we're handcuffing him and giving him a little bit of the offense...," Levine said Tuesday. "Our program saw that in 2010. Regardless whether you're first string, third, or fourth, you better know what you're doing."
And so far, O'Korn has known what he's doing. The UH offense has perhaps looked it's best under O'Korn this season, though Rice head coach David Bailiff said it's hard to spot any difference between Piland and O'Korn, saying they look almost identical when watching video.
Rice will use two quarterbacks in Taylor McHargue and Driphus Jackson. McHargue's the starter, and the Rice offense looks at its most high-powered best when he's running the show. But McHargue suffered a concussion at some point last week against Kansas. Jackson received some major playing time last season - starting the UH game last season and leading Rice to triumph at the Armed Forces Bowl after McHargue was injured.
THE BEAUTIFULLY UGLY TROPHY
The Bayou Bucket is not the biggest rivalry game in college football. It's not two great football programs playing each other for national bragging rights. And if Texas and Texas A&M can stop playing their series, then UH and Rice not playing each other after this season is not really that big a deal. Still, both teams want this win.
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"No matter who we're playing, I like to win," Rice kicker Chris Boswell said Monday. "If we're playing Houston, if we're playing SMU, I just want to win no matter what. But the fact that it's a city rivalry and we're just down the street makes it that much sweeter if we win."
And Houston's Levine notes how the schools are just miles apart. The coaches live by each other. The players know each other, and most of them were recruited by both schools. If this series is going on pause, then both teams want that trophy sitting in their locker room.
"This game's good for the city of Houston," Bailiff said. "The Bayou Bucket. That's one of the ugliest trophy's you're ever going to see, but god those kids want that thing in their locker room. It'll be a great football game."
Calling it a great game might be a bit of a stretch. But if both teams play like they're capable of playing, then it should be an entertaining game.