The Rice Owls dominated Fresno State on Christmas Eve, winning the Hawaii Bowl 30-6 to finish the season at 8-5. The Owls set a bowl record, becoming the first team to hold an opponent to zero touchdowns. Rice piled up 463 yards on offense while holding Fresno State to just 238 yards -- 93 yards passing. It was an impressive, yet somewhat boring game. Once the game started there was no doubt the Owls would win.
That's the Owls' second bowl win in three years. That was the Owls third bowl win in seven years. It was the Owls fourth bowl appearance in seven years. For a team that had gone over 40 years between bowl appearances, this whole postseason thing is now becoming a pretty commonplace occurrence for Rice football. That's quite the accomplishment, made perhaps even more amazing when you consider the discussion around Rice less than a decade ago was whether the school should do away with the football program.
Head coach David Bailiff has done an incredible job with the Owls. If any person can be said to really get the environment into which he's stepped, it's Bailiff. Rice is one of the smallest colleges on the FBS level. It's a small private school with exacting admission standards. Recruiting mistakes can't be remedied by going out and bringing in juco players. There's a very thin margin of error for mistake at Rice. It's a margin that Bailiff struggled with early in his tenure, just as every other Rice coach has struggled, but it's one he seems to have figured out.
Bailiff has cleared out the guys who didn't want to be there -- guy's who figured it didn't matter because the program couldn't win and might not even exist much longer. He's gotten guys who not only think they can win football games, but now know they can win football games. He's built a nice recruiting pipeline in the state. And while Rice Stadium will never be packed with fans (game attendance is usually about double the number of students who attend the school) he's succeeded in changing the campus attitude of the team. Rice football is no longer a joke on campus. The Owls are never going to compete for the national title. The school just doesn't have the resources for that. But Bailiff's set his team up to compete in Conference USA, and there should be no doubt that the Owls are perfectly positioned to compete for the conference title year in and year out. The Owls do not take the easy way out either, each season loading up on a difficult non-conference schedule that most teams would shy away from -- next year has the Owls traveling to UT and to Baylor while this past season saw them go to Texas A&M and to Notre Dame.
There are still Rice fans who have yet to forgive Bailiff for losing his first game as the team's head coach, a 16-14 loss to Nicholls State in 2007. But if he hasn't won over those fans yet, then the question should really be one of whether those people are actually Rice football fans. He's turned a laughingstock into a team that wins games. This Rice team was the first in school history to win seven-plus games three seasons in a row. It's the first one to ever go to three bowl games in a row. The team is fundamentally sound. It's not going to blow you away with a fancy offense and the defense will not blitz you into oblivion. Mistakes are minimized, the talents of the players are utilized.
The Owls are losing a number of key players next season. Jordan Taylor, Mario Hull, Zach Patt, James Radcliffe, Matt Simonette, Julius White, Gabe Baker, Bryce Callahan, and many more are graduating. But many big contributors return, including quarterback Driphus Jackson and running backs Darik Dillard and Jowan Davis. And if the injury bug that plagued the team early in the season was good for anything, it was because it gave lots of youngsters some major practice and game action which will be very important next year.
Rice football is no longer a punchline. It's never going to compete with the Alabamas of college football, but the Owls are set to consistently deliver a winning product year in and year out. David Bailiff gets the culture of Rice, and he seems to thrive in it. Bailiff and Rice are a nice match, and Rice fans should sit back and enjoy the team being relevant because frankly, who ever really thought that would happen again.
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