Two seasons ago, the Rice Owls went 10-3 and won the Texas Bowl. Last year, the Owls went 2-10, including 0-9 to start the season. Saturday, the Owls got down to business for this season, and the question lingers: is this going to be like 2008, or 2009?
"We have the chance to be a much improved football team," Owls head coach David Bailiff said at Saturday's media day. "We have matured over the last season. We're bigger, faster, stronger. It's one of those where we expect to win. We expect to go to a bowl game. We expect these young men to come out and compete every snap, and play a great brand of football. We're going to keep our expectations always high. And this season, I think we're going to be a real good football team, and we're going to surprise some people."
Whatever could go wrong for the Owls last season went wrong. The team was beset by injuries, especially on the defensive side. The offense was uneven. The team lacked depth. And at times, it appeared that the Owls were composed of two squads competing against each other rather than one team competing against an opponent.
This year, the players say, things are going to be different.
"Basically we're trying to work together as a unit, get the whole team together this time, instead of the defense battling against the offense, or we're fighting ourselves, beating ourselves up basically," says safety Chris Jones. "This time we're trying to make sure we're working as a unit. We're not letting Rice beat Rice."
One thing the Owls will have working in their favor this season is the return of running back Sam McGuffie. McGuffie, the Cy Fair High School graduate was one of the nation's top recruits in 2007, and he gained 535 yards on 118 carriers for the Michigan in 2008. He transferred away from that scandal-ridden program before last season, but due to the NCAA's arcane and punishing transfer rules, McGuffie had to watch from the Rice sideline last season.
"It's been a tough year for him, and us, knowing that he's over there and can't play," Bailiff said. "But he is so excited to get out there today. He's one of those, a lot like James Casey. One of the first here and the last to leave. He loves football, and he loves to practice. And the beautiful thing is we have a lot of young men like that now. That absolutely love this game and are passionate about it. We're really thrilled Sam chose us, and we can't wait to see him out there in the [Rice colors] carrying the ball."
McGuffie admits that it was strange sitting around, watching, but not being able to play last season, and he's excited not only about playing again this season, but with the chances for the Owls.
"It's wild. It's been a wild ride so far," he said Saturday. "I believe that we have something special here, that not everyone knows about, but the people in this building do. I just think with a little a bit more practice, a little bit more coaching, and just a couple of more opportunities I think we're going to be something special here in the near future."
Along with the addition of McGuffie, Bailiff feels that the key to this year's team, and the prime change from last year's squad, is the team's depth. A depth the team's never had while's he been coach.
"We're starting this camp with 101 players on the roster, so our roster's growing every season," Bailiff said. "That first spring , we went through with 56 players. We're actually getting to a number where we feel we can compete and make runs for conference championships every year. These young men have absolutely committed not to be good, but to be great."
The Owls are going to have to be great out of the shoot if they're going to stand any chance in game number one. They're opening the season on September 4 at Reliant Stadium against the Texas Longhorns. he coaches and players are excited about this opportunity, but they see it as a chance of seeing how far they've come since last season, and figuring out just what they've got to do to win Conference USA.
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"We're starting off with the best," Bailiff said. "And there's nothing wrong with that. Our players are excited. Our fans are excited to play the Longhorns. That's a game where we have an opportunity for us to improve, because it's about Conference USA. And those preseason games - I love the fact that we're starting against Texas. I wish we did that every season, played somebody that's a Top 10 team to get it started."
McGuffie played in several huge games like this in his time with Michigan. He knows what it's like for his teammates, who normally don't get to play these kind of games.
"I was in their boat, too," he said. "When I was a freshman, right off of the boat. It was an eye-opener. I know what it's like, and there's nothing that can replace that feeling, no matter how many times you've done it. I'm going to be there with them, even though I've been through that. But there's nothing that can replace a packed crowd."
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
Coach Bailiff said that, going into two-a-days, the starting QB is Nick Fanuzzi, though that can change. But unlike last season, there will be a single starter, and he will be named before the Texas game....Coach Bailiff's radio show will air every Monday from 7:30 to 8:30 on 97.5, and it will debut the Monday before the Texas game.