CUSA Football Preview: #12 Rice Owls

Shane Bearden, InsideHilltopperSports.com
Inside Hilltopper Sports
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www.riceowls.com

2016 Recap

Record: 3-9

Wins: Prairie View, Charlotte, UTEP

Losses: WKU, Army, Baylor, North Texas, Southern Miss, UTSA, La Tech, FAU, Stanford

In 2016 Rice started off by losing their first 6 games of the season. It wasn't until they faced off against FCS foe Prairie View, almost 2 months into the season, that they were able to get into the win column. A game that turned into a 65-44 shootout to see the Owls to victory. Rice waited another 2 weeks before adding to their win total with a narrow 1-point victory over Charlotte. The following week the Owls drubbed UTEP 44-22 and Holy Moly they had a winning streak. Only to be drubbed themselves by Stanford the next week to end their 2016 campaign with the programs worst record since going 2-10 in 2009.

The disappointing season had many Rice fans clamoring for a head coaching change. Coach David Bailiff has somehow managed to maintain his job with the owls for the 10 years despite averaging a 5-7 record during his tenure. His seat seems to be getting much warmer. Another rough season in 2017 could see the Owls AD forced to make a change.

2017 Preview

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AP Photo/Eric Gay

Offense:

The Owls were pretty poor on the offensive side of the ball in 2016. Ranking as the #93 scoring offense, averaging a poor 25.3 points per game. Rice also managed to turn the ball over quite a bit and finished ranked #112 in FBS in turnover margin. QB Tyler Stehling has graduated and his replacement will need to out perform expectations this season in order for the Owls to have a chance against their difficult schedule. Sophomore QB's Jackson Tyner, J.T. Granato, and redshirt-freshman Sam Glaesmann should be the ones vying for the starting job in 2017. When Stehling tore his ACL during the UTEP game, Tyner stepped in to replace him. After an early fumble, Tyner led the Owls to 34 straight points and a victory over the Miners. Still, Tyner came back down to earth the following game against Stanford and looked rough.

“The great thing is they’re all talented,” coach David Bailiff told the Houston Chronicle after the spring game. “J.T. has just made some incredible throws and Jackson and Sam. We just have to get more consistent and what they really have to do is take care of the ball.”

Darik Dillard has departed at running back as well, but supporting back Samuel Stewart is ready to step up into the main role. Stewart ended up with 603 all purpose yards last season to go along with 6 touchdowns. He averaged an impressive 6.2 yards per carry in the run game and did most of that damage in only 5 games. He needs to stay healthy, but he could actually be an improvement at running back for the Owls this season.

At receiver the Owls lost one of their top WR's to transfer in Temi Alaka. Alaka decided to transfer to South Florida as a graduate transfer and will be eligible to play immediately. It will be up to sophomore Kylen Granson, junior Lance Wright, and junior Parker Smith to lead the receiving core in 2017.

The best hope for the Rice offense lies with the big bodies up front. The owls return 7 players with starting experience along the line thanks in part to some injuries in 2016. All-CUSA honorable mentions Calvin Anderson (left tackle) and Trey Martin (center) headline the group that could be the Owls biggest strength in 2017.

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salt lake tribune

Defense:

With a bad offense and a pension for turnovers, you need a solid defense to rely on or it could be a long season. In 2016 the Owls defense was far from solid, ranking #123 out of 128 FBS teams in total defense allowing 504 yards per game to opposing offenses. Rice also ranked a putrid #114 in scoring defense, giving up more then 37 points per game to opponents.

The good news? Senior LB Emmanuel Ellerbee was a first team All-C-USA selection last season, leading the league in tackles per game at 10.7, with his 118 total tackles being 2nd in the league.

More good news is that injuries and illness also had an effect on the defensive unit in 2016. Rice had 11 defensive lineman record at least 8 tackles in 2016. Of 12 defensive backs, 6 missed some time last season while 1 of those players missed the entire season. 10 of the 11 defensive lineman return for 2017 as do 9 of the 12 defensive backs. If nothing else, there is something to be said for experience.

Even with a decent pass rush, Rice had one of the worst passing downs defense in the country. If they couldn't get pressure on the QB they were picked a part last season. The top three returning defensive ends (Graysen Schantz, Brian Womac, and Blain Padgett) combined for 19.5 tackles for loss and six sacks last year. The top four returning defensive lineman (Roe Wilkins, Carl Thompson, Preston Gordon, and Zach Abercrumbia) combined for 12.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks as well.

The biggest loss for the defense could come in the secondary where safety Tabari McGaskey was nearly the only play-maker in that part of the field for the Owls in 2016.

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houston chronicle

Special Teams:

Keeping this short and sweet, special teams were neither great nor horrendous for the Owls in 2016. An average unit of any kind had to be a win for Rice in 2016. Everyone is back on special teams for 2017. While improvement may be marginal, any improvement at for the team has to be seen as a win.

SUMMARY

Similar to both UTEP and Charlotte, there are simply too many questions heading into 2017. However, Bailiff has proven on several occasions being capable of having a turnaround in him just in the nick of time to save his job for another couple of years. However, I think that run will come to an end this season. Even if they manage to stay healthy. It will be tough for the Owls to up their win total by very much over last season. Rice has an abnormally tough OOC schedule that includes 4 teams that all played in bowls last season. As well as having to face La Tech, Southern Miss, and a much improved UTSA team in conference play. This could be the final year of the Bailiff era for the Owls if he doesn't have another massive turnaround this season.

SCHEDULE & PREDICTION

Aug. 26 vs Stanford (game in Australia)

Sept. 9 @ UTEP

Sept. 16 @ Houston

Sept. 23 vs Florida International

Sept. 30 @ Pittsburgh

Oct. 7 vs. Army

Oct. 21 @ UTSA

Oct. 28 vs. La Tech

Nov. 4 @ UAB

Nov. 11 vs Southern Miss

Nov. 18 @ Old Dominion

Nov. 25 vs North Texas

Record: 3-9 or 4-8

Projected Wins: FIU, UTSA, Old Dominion, and/or UTEP

Projected Losses: Stanford, Houston, Pittsburgh, Army, La Tech, UAB, Southern Miss, North Texas, and/or UTEP

Previous Rankings:

#13 UTEP Miners

#14 Charlotte 49ers

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