David Bailiff''s sixth season at the helm of the program began with a lopsided, 49-24, loss at home to the UCLA Bruins. Rice then hit the road to capture a 25-24 victory at Kansas, but lost four in a row to Louisiana Tech (56-37), Marshall (54-51), Houston (35-14) and Memphis (14-10). The Owls then split their next two, defeating Texas-San Antonio (34-14) and falling, 28-24, at Tulsa. The winning streak then began at home versus Southern Miss (44-17) and continued with victories over Tulane (49-47), SMU (36-14) and Texas-El Paso (33-24). The Owls put on an impressive display in the Armed Forces Bowl as they coasted to a 33-14 win over Air Force that left them with a 7-6 record.
Bailiff has a 30-44 record in six seasons at Rice and a 51-59 career record. He has led the Owls to a winning finish in two years and has a perfect 2-0 record in bowl games.
OFFENSE: Rice had the 44th most productive offense in the FBS last season with an average of 427.4 yards per game. Nine starters return from that unit, including senior quarterback Taylor McHargue, who threw for 2,209 yards with 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions, while also finishing second on the team in rushing with 667 yards and a team-best 11 scores. He has struggled with injuries throughout his career due to his tendency to put his head down and take off. His coaches are hoping McHargue is more cautious during his senior campaign.
"It's something, they hate it, but I don't know how to change my style," McHargue said at Conference USA Media Day. "I played running back until I got to high school. When I start running, I know I take unnecessary hits and I'm going to try and cut down on that this season. Running the ball is part of our position at Rice. We don't throw it 60 times per game. We carry it 15 times a game. I'm going to try to change my style."
Senior running back Charles Ross is also back after finishing 11th in the C- USA with 800 yards. He also dealt with the injury bug in 2012, but averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Slot back Turner Petersen was a big-time duel threat last season as he tallied 607 rushing yards and 166 receiving yards with six total visits to the end zone.
Junior wide receiver Jordan Taylor is expected to be one of the top pass catchers in the conference once again. He was named the MVP of the Armed Forces Bowl, finishing with nine catches, 153 yards and three touchdowns. He had been held out of the end zone for the entire regular season before his bowl game breakthrough. Donta Moore (326 yards, four TDs) is going to need to be productive to keep the opposition from keying on Taylor too much.
The offensive line that cleared the path for Rice's ball carriers returns all five starters. Left tackle Nate Richards (6-7, 300) and center Jon Hodde (6-4, 305) are both all-conference caliber blockers.
DEFENSE: Rice's defense not only has 10 starters returning, but also the C-USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in senior cornerback Phillip Gaines. The Owls did a decent job against the pass last season as they collected 11 interceptions and held both Louisiana Tech and Marshall to under 300 yards. Gaines was a consensus All-Conference USA selection after leading the league and finishing second nationally with 18 pass breakups. Gaines led the conference and was tied for eighth nationally with 1.5 passes defended per game.
Junior Bryce Callahan will start at the opposite corner position while Julius White, Paul Porras and Gabe Baker all bring starting experience back to the secondary. Rice needs to improve against the run after giving up 190.7 yards on the ground per game in 2012.
Senior linebacker Cameron Nwosu registered 92 total tackles last season, which was the second most on the team behind Porras's 93. Junior linebacker James Radcliffe will get plenty of time in the 4-2-5 scheme as well. Cody Bauer (6-4, 255), Christian Covington (6-3, 290) and Hosam Shahin (6-3, 275) reached the opposing quarterback a combined total of 15.5 times. Tanner Leland (6-2, 220) will hope for a healthy senior season as he competes for time at defensive end.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The situation at punter is sure to improve this year after a tight end had to take over that responsibility last season. Redshirt freshman Cameron Decell (6-0, 210) will be the starter until he loses the job. Senior kicker Chris Boswell will be looking to add to his career total of 11 made field goals from beyond 50 yards. He has drilled 76.1 percent his field goal tries in his career including 23-of-29 as a junior.
"He is just really confident in his ability and he backs it up," said Bailiff on his star kicker. "He is one of the first kickers I've been around that truly influences the football team with leadership, his accolades and what he's accomplished."
Backup tailback Jeremy Eddington became the starting kick returner late last season. He stole the show against UTEP, picking up 210 yards with a score on four returns to arrive at 279 all-purpose yards. Dennis Parks led the Owls with 13 punt returns as a freshman, but Bailiff may go in another direction due to his sub par average of 3.2 yards per return.
OUTLOOK: The Owls have 19 of their 22 starters back from a strong campaign that ended with a bowl victory. A weakened Conference USA is only going to benefit them as they vie for their first league title since they were co- champions of the Southwest Conference in 1994.
Rice begins its season against the reigning Heisman Trophy Award winner at Texas A&M. It will have a week off before it hosts Kansas for a rematch of last season's thriller. The Owls then play their crosstown rival Houston Cougars as Reliant Stadium and begin their conference schedule the following week at home versus Florida Atlantic. They continue with C-USA road games at Tulsa and Texas-San Antonio before their final non-conference matchup, at New Mexico State. The final part of Rice's journey includes bouts with UTEP, North Texas, Louisiana Tech, UAB and Tulane.
Bailiff's team will be a serious contender to win the conference if its momentum from last season carries over. The Owls have a very favorable schedule and their non-conference opponents should have them ready to go. The defense was below average last season, so an improvement in that area will be necessary. Rice should finish no lower than second in the West Division, with Tulsa being its only true competitor for a ticket to the conference title game.