Then last season happened.
Rice went 5-7 last year. Not great, sure, but not as bad as all those 4-8 seasons that Rice had seemed doomed to repeat year in and year out just last decade. And sure, the Owls really weren't good enough talent-wise to compete for the Conference USA title, but they returned a lot of talent, including a senior QB. But then the season started and the bad old days seemed to return.
Rice beat Rice, just as in the old days. Not that opponents really needed Rice's assistance in that regard. Baylor, which won 70-17, would have defeated Rice even if the Owls had played a perfect game. Same for Western Kentucky and Southern Miss. Those were just good football teams that Rice likely could not have beaten even during the team's three previous bowl seasons. But Rice fell to teams it should have easily defeated, too, like UTEP and UTSA, in games in which it made stupid mistakes, botched tackles and reads, fumbled the ball and missed blocks.
"As hard as that was on us, that power of failure, it forced us to focus," head coach David Bailiff told reporters last week. "It forced us to analyze everything we do in this program — offense, defense, special teams. It forced this football team to really look in the mirror and see that they’re willing to dedicate themselves, to live with the expectations that we expect. We expect to be conference champions. We expect to get a bowl game slot. When we don’t, after going three straight years — you’re sitting at home in December — bowl season’s not fun.”
That's the thing with Rice football. The Owls just aren't enough, just not talented enough to take things for granted, to become complacent. It's like Bailiff and his players say often — for Rice to win games, it has to play nearly perfect football. It has to out-think opponents and outplay opponents. The Owls can't get sloppy. The team can't let up.
“For us to win, we’re going to have to be the best team,” Bailiff said. “And that’s what we expect to be this year, the hardest-working, the smartest team in Conference USA.”
But now it's 2016, and a new day for Rice football. There's the brand-new Brian Patterson Sports Complex in the north end zone, which provides the team a state-of-the-art workout, practice, medical, locker room and coaching facility. Then there are 17 returning starters from last year, many of them on the offensive and defensive line, who were pressed into duty last year as freshmen because of injuries to more experienced players. Then there's the new attitude, the attitude that Rice should be playing for a bowl game and conference title every year.
Bailiff promises that the offense will be able to play different speeds this season, and that it will be able to play up-tempo. There should be fewer personnel packages requiring wholesale substitutions. But with all of that, it's key to remember that Rice returns four running backs (Darik Dillard, Juwan Davis, Samuel Stewart and Austin Walter) who can each bust out for 100-yard rushing games.
Rice will have a new QB this year as fifth-year senior Tyler Stehling finally gets his chance. Stehling knows the offense and knows the players, and he's had some playing time the past two seasons. But that time has been limited, usually in garbage time, so what he'll be able to do on the field is yet to be known. But he has his tight ends back (a group Bailiff says might be the best in the country), and he also has the receiving corps back.
The season's first game is Thursday, September 1, when the Owls travel to Western Kentucky, followed the next week by a trip to West Point to face Army. The first home game for the Owls will be on Friday, September 16, when Rice hosts what's left of the Baylor football team before a national TV audience on ESPN. Maybe by then we'll know if it's a return of the Rice Owls team of 2015, or whether it's the Rice Owls who went to three straight bowl games and won a conference title.