Here are five things to know about Rice:
1. David Bailiff finally turned the program around
Other than a blip in 2008 when the Owls had an extremely experienced team and won 10 games, there was a stretch where it looked like Bailiff wouldn't survive long -- Rice started 2-6 in 2012, but has gone 24-9 since then, with three consecutive bowl appearances, two bowl wins, and a Conference USA championship.
2. QB Driphus Jackson is a highly capable player
Though the Cedar Hill product is only in his second season as a starter, he was impressive in 2014, passing for 2,842 yards and 24 touchdowns, along with 401 yards on the ground. At 6'0 and 205 pounds, he's undersized for the position, but his mobility makes him a threat to break contain and pick off yards on off-schedule plays, as well as gash the Horns on read-option plays. So it could be another week where Texas sacrifices some pass-rushing ability to ensure that Jackson stays in the pocket.
The overall passing numbers are good for him and he finished the 2014 season with two 300-yard passing games, including a 15-of-24 performance against Fresno State for 318 yards and three touchdowns. He holds three of the six longest touchdown completions in school history and is one of only three Rice quarterbacks to go over 3,000 yards of total offense in a season.
3. The Owls lost a lot of experience from 2014
At a program like Rice, replacing talented and productive players can be difficult, but that's exactly what Bailiff is doing this year. The two best playmaking receivers departed, as did three starters along the offensive line. The team's best defensive lineman gave up his final season of football for a job in the oil and gas industry and another left early for the NFL, while the secondary lost five of its top six tacklers. Since the Owls play a version of Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 defense, that attrition could be highly impactful early in the 2015 season.
4. Rice struggled against good teams in 2014
Let's allow Bill C. to break this down:
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ top 50): 9% (record: 0-4 | avg. score: Opponent 51, Rice 18)
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. everyone else): 68% (record: 8-1 | avg. score: Rice 34, Opponent 19)
The offense was strangely consistent -- 5.6 yards per play against Notre Dame, 5.6 against Southern Miss, 5.9 against North Texas, 5.2 against Louisiana Tech -- but the defense wasn't capable of slowing down strong offensive attacks. The Owls played five offenses in the Off. S&P+ top 60 and eight that ranked worse than 85th. The difference was stark.
- Rice Defense (vs. Off. S&P+ top 60): 8.38 yards per play, 49.6 points per game
- Rice Defense (vs. everyone else): 4.07 yards per play, 15.3 points per game
Now, you expect a defense to do better against bad offenses, but these numbers go well beyond that. If Rice could craft an athleticism advantage on defense, the Owls completely dominated. But against offenses with a pulse, they were doomed. They held Hawaii, North Texas, FIU, and Fresno State all under four yards per play, but they couldn't keep Notre Dame and Louisiana Tech under nine per play. That's startling.
Of course, Texas isn't a good team right now in any sense of the word, but the hope is that the advantage in athleticism should help the Horns achieve the type of success that top offenses and defenses did last year. On the other hand, perhaps Texas has fallen so far that Rice can relegate the Horns to the category of teams it can control. At this point, nothing seems unthinkable.
5. Rice hasn't won in Austin in 50 years
"Why does Rice play Texas?"
The famous words of president John F. Kennedy still echo through the years. In fact, Saturday will be the 53rd anniversary of Kennedy's speech in Houston that exhorted Americans to become engaged in the space race. Little has changed regarding the series between in the two schools in the intervening years, as the Horns hold a 72-21-1 record against the Owls since the series began in 1914. The last Rice win came in 1994 and, in fact, is the only win against Texas since a 20-17 victory in Austin in 1965.
There have been plenty of historic lows for the Texas program in recent years, but losing to Rice in Austin for the first time in 50 years would be among the lowest if the Owls can emerge with the upset.