The worst thing to happen to Rice Owls head coach David Bailiff is also probably the best thing to happen to David Bailiff. That thing was Rice's defeating Marshall 42-24 on December 7, 2013, to win the Conference USA title. That win appeared to show that Rice had finally turned the corner. That it would no longer be that program the other schools beat up on and scheduled for homecoming games so they could get the easy wins.
But that whole turning-the-corner-thing was just a mirage. Unless turning the corner means going back to the way things were.
The Owls defeated Prairie View by a 65-44 score on Saturday afternoon. The Owls gained 634 total yards on offense, including 434 yards through the air and 200 yards on the ground. Starting quarterback Tyler Stehling was 22 for 31 for 407 yards and five touchdowns, while running back Samuel Stewart rushed for a touchdown and 116 yards.
This Rice win is not so remarkable, though, because lower-division FCS teams like Prairie View are scheduled by the upper-division FBS schools like Rice for the guaranteed win. What’s remarkable about the win, however, was that it was Rice’s first win of the season after six losses. And what’s also remarkable is that Rice had trouble putting Prairie View away, with the defense struggling like it has done in no other game this season.
The hope is that this victory will take some pressure off the Owls. The thinking is that maybe the Owls have pressed so hard to get a win, struggled to play perfect games and cut back on mistakes that the focus has not actually been on playing football as much as it’s been on not screwing up.
“I know wins inject confidence in you,” Bailiff said after the game. ‘That’s why you always like to get a win early in the season for that very reason. Hopefully, this’ll give these young men some confidence and we can do some great things around here.”
But seeing as how the Owls play in Conference USA, continuously hoping to gain confidence and hoping to do some great things is not enough. This isn’t the SEC. It’s a conference full of schools that aren’t really good enough to go to a more powerful conference, and it’s a conference that Bailiff and his team have shown they can be competitive in. So maybe if Rice fans are tired of hearing about mistakes and gaining confidence, this could be why.
The sad thing is that there was some reason for optimism with Rice football to start the season. Sure, the Owls went 5-7 last season, missing a bowl game for the first time in four years. But there were injuries to deal with, and issues with depth, and this season wouldn’t be so much about turning it around as it was supposed to be about adjusting the path. After all, it was not really that long ago that Rice won the conference title, and this isn’t a conference in which schools are competing with the likes of Alabama and Ohio State.
But this has been a season of misadventures, penalties, questionable play-calling and mistake after mistake. The team has looked nothing like the Rice team that went 10-4 in 2013, but has instead looked more and more like the 2-10 team of 2009.
“It’s little things that continue to haunt us,” Bailiff said after Saturday’s game. “We have to work on those little things.”
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David Bailiff is a good man. He has done an admirable job as the head coach of Rice football. He takes the blame for lots of the team’s problems, as a head coach should. He talks about the mistakes being on him, and how everything that goes wrong is correctable. The team is close. There’s the talk about how Rice has to stop beating itself, about how it’s not good enough to get away with mental mistakes. But Bailiff’s career record is now 54-66, and the team has definitely been regressing.
Rice was one of the schools that pitched the Big 12. The Big 12 chose not to expand, and the odds were against Rice even if there was an expansion, but it’s clear that Rice understands that Conference USA is a mess of a conference with an awful television contract and declining revenues. And it’s clear that Rice needs to get into another conference to thrive, or even survive. Thus the brand-new Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center and the new tennis facilities. Rice is trying to upgrade. But that’s just not going to be possible if the football team continues to underperform and the people of Houston continue to stay away from the stadium.
Supporters of Bailiff will point to the bowl games and the bowl wins. They’ll point to the team’s academic record, and how the school’s focus on academics limits what it can do — along with the recruiting issues, there’s always the fact that players often have to miss practices for classes. Bailiff’s earned some time to fix things, those supporters will say. But there is a growing faction that thinks Bailiff has had time to fix things and a sixth losing season is now one too many. They note the success that Stanford has in athletics, and they’ll conclude that if Rice wants to go to another conference, changes have to be made.
So maybe that win over Prairie View is a good thing in the short term for the Owls. But the fact that Rice needed to beat Prairie View to get its first win of the season is evidence that something is wrong with Rice football. The question now is what Rice decides to do about it.