Rice Athletic Department Rice QB Taylor McHargue looks to lead the Owls to a second straight bowl appearance
While this a new season for the Owls, it's not necessarily a new team that'll be taking the field for workouts next week or suiting up against the Aggies on August 31. The team returns 18 starters, and for the first time in memory, there were no offseason changes to the coaching staff. The Owls feel they're ready to play football. And they're prepared to build off of last season's finish while doing something unheard-of for Rice football: going to consecutive bowl games.
"We feel good about [the season]," head coach David Bailiff said at last week's Conference USA media day. "What we have to make sure we do is just keep working. The expectations are high. We've got to learn now, with the expectations, how we're going to play the game."
There are several reasons expectations are high for Rice. There's the large number of returning starters, including quarterback Taylor McHargue. There's the fact that, for the most part, this is the same team that won six of the team's last seven games, including five straight at the end, to not only win a bowl game in dominating fashion, but to finish with a winning record.
Then there's the most important thing. The Owls are still playing in Conference USA, and C-USA underwent quite the change in the offseason, losing Houston, SMU and UCF while adding numerous schools from the minor conferences like the WAC and the Sun Belt. Despite opening the season against the Aggies, the Owls are playing a softer schedule than last year's, and it's one in which the Owls, should they play like they did to end last season, will easily be able to win their fair share of games.
"Winning's fun," Bailiff said. "When you win, the world's right, and when you don't, the world's tough. It was fun to see those young men get on that [season-ending] streak because of the hardships they had persevered through earlier in the year."
The Owls did lose several key players on offense -- top receivers Luke Willson, Vance McDonald and Sam McGuffie -- but the team's leading rusher, Charles Ross, is back as are McHargue, several receivers and an offensive line that finally started jelling at the end of the season, and kicker Chris Boswell, one of the nation's top college kickers who is as close to automatic from long distances as one can find in a kicker.
"He's just so confident in his ability," Bailiff said of Boswell. "I've never been around a kicker -- it's like he has a golf bag...it's amazing what he can do with his foot."
McHargue, who's coming off another trip to the Manning Passing Academy -- no, he doesn't have any Johnny Manziel stories to share -- will once again be in the enviable position of figuring out which of the team's offensive pieces will get the ball on each play. And it's a challenge that he relishes.
"We spread it around pretty evenly...that's something we pride ourselves on with our offense, the ability to spread the ball around," he said. "We get it to different guys. That's how the offense is set up. There's times when you key on one guy, but our offense is all about just getting it to the guy who's in open space, and that's usually somebody different every play."
McHargue, when he hasn't been chatting up the Mannings for advice, has been studying tape of the Aggies and Manziel. He's trying to get clues on the Aggie defense, but he's also hoping to pick up some things from Manziel and the Aggie offense that he can incorporate into his game. And he's quite clear about one thing: It's no longer enough for the Owls to just be competitive with teams like Texas A&M.
"The goal is not anymore to go in and compete with the big teams," he said. "The goal is to go in and win. And we're expecting to compete for a conference championship, and if that's the case, we should be able to compete with anybody."
Rice's competition for the C-USA West title should be Tulsa. The Owls had Tulsa beat for 58 minutes last season, losing in the closing minute of the game. But with UH and SMU gone from the division, the Owls are being picked to finish above and defeat UTEP, Tulane, and new additions North Texas, UTSA and Louisiana Tech.
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"We've got to stay healthy," Bailiff says. "In '08, when we won ten and were so explosive offensively, we had the same starters from September to December. Especially at the quarterback position. The healthier we can stay, the better we're going to be, and that's everywhere."
And while staying healthy is important, and while McHargue's making good use of the offense is also key, the most important thing for Rice is to not let Rice beat Rice. The team learned last season that when they make all of the tackles, when they don't turn the ball over or commit penalties, they can win games.
"This year, when it comes time to make those plays, or not make those mistakes, that you can count on this team to get the job done," McHargue said.
And if that happens, if the team stays healthy, if they can take advantage of the softer schedule, then the Owls should make a bowl game. They might not be the Aggies, but given this team's history, a second straight winning record and a repeat bowl appearance might be even more important.