It's Back to the Future as the Rice Owls Seek a Conference Title

The Americans had yet to get into space the last time the Rice Owls football team won an outright conference championship. Ike had yet to warn the world of the menace of the military-industrial complex. JFK was just another senator. U.S. tourists could still travel to Cuba. The Astrodome was just a gleam in the eye of Judge Roy Hofheinz.

It's been a long time since 1957. Houston's the home of four, that's right, four stadiums hosting their own professional teams. JFK's the subject of millions of conspiracy theories, and Cuba's off-limits to Americans. And the Rice Owls have been mostly uncompetitive in the sphere of college football.

Saturday is supposed to be a cold, miserable day. But the enthusiasm of the Rice Owls (9-3) will not be dimmed. Not now. Not now when all that they have to do is go out and defeat the Marshall Thundering Herd (9-3) to collect that elusive conference championship. Not when they're playing at home, at historic Rice Stadium, a stadium where this season the team's undefeated. Not when they can finally set aside some demons that have been a long time gathering.

t's not about 1957 for the players. They're aware of the history. Of the godawful teams that Rice has fielded over the years. Of the one-win seasons. Of being homecoming fodder for the big boys. They're aware, but this is about something different. This is about fulfilling vows and promises they made four and five years ago.

"It was tough early on, the first couple of years that we were here," senior quarterback Taylor McHargue said on Monday. "It's no secret that our first few years here of our class were not very good. But we never lost faith. I think we always had trust in the class that we were going to keep it together. We lost some guys along the way. Had some guys leave and come back. But the nucleus of this group stayed together. This was always the goal. We said coming in to this season -- the goal for every season for every team is to compete for conference -- but it really was the expectation."

The Owls have 23 seniors on this team, including 19-fifth year players. They've been as close to the bottom as a team can get. Now they have the chance to be a part of building some new. Of being the foundation for a winning program.

"I think it's something that we'll look back on and talk about, how we were part of the turnaround," senior defensive tackle Tanner Leland said. "You kind of see turnarounds around the country, and to be a part of one is kind of special."

It's going to be a tough battle for the Owls. Marshall (9-3) presents a good offensive team, one that Rice head coach David Bailiff compared to Texas A&M, especially Marshall QB Rakeem Cato who has the ability to run and throw and create something from nothing like Johnny Manziel. Rice's defense has excelled this season, but they've not had to handle many offenses like that presented by Marshall.

Then comes the Rice offense which goes up against a Marshall defense which made the turnaround from being one of the worst in the country last season to being one of the best in the country this season. That's not good news for a Rice offense which has sputtered and misfired throughout the season and which will be missing one of its key cogs, running back Turner Petersen who injured his knee in last week's victory over Tulane and is now out for the season.

"Marshall's got a whole different [offensive] skill set than Tulane [last week's opponent] did," Bailiff said. "They have a massive offensive line. They have great receivers. They don't have any weak points that we can exploit. They're good at what they do. Their quarterback has an understanding, you can tell with that confidence right now, he's playing with a lot of moxie, with a lot of swagger. We'll have to be at our best."

It's not about 1957 for the Rice Owls. It's not about the years of failure. It's about the now. Of winning the next game. Of being conference champions. Of turning Rice into a winning program that routinely goes to bowl games. This team's going to a bowl game for the second season in a row. It's on the verge of a winning a conference title. It's about no longer being the laughingstock on campus.

The Rice Owls are this close. And come kickoff time at 11 a.m. tomorrow, that time will be even closer.

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