Over the years, Rice has enjoyed a degree of football success, but nothing that sustained very long. The Owls entered the season in another dry spell, having last qualified for a bowl game while also earning a winning record during the 8-5 season in 2014.
Entering this year, the Owls had seven straight losing seasons.
The expectations weren’t exactly sky-high. In the Conference USA preseason poll, Rice was picked to finish 10th in the 11-team league.
Coming off a 4-8 season, who can blame the prognosticators? Then again, there is enough of the season left and a not-so-good recent track record, to make this prediction come either true or close.
Then there is the other side of the story.
Maybe Rice is the surprise team in its final year in the C-USA before bolting for the American Athletic Conference with fellow conference schools Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, UAB, and UTSA.
Rice is 3-2 and 1-0 in C-USA. Fifth-year coach Mike Bloomgren has made good use of the transfer portal, and he already had an experienced returning cast. The Owls, who had a bye this past week, defeated UAB 28-24 in its most recent game. It made the Owls 3-0 at home for the first time since 2013 when they were 6-0.
The week before, the Owls lost a 34-27 decision to Houston.
Of course, every team either seems to win or lose close games to Houston. In that game, Houston trailed 27-24 before scoring 10 points over the final six minutes.
When Rice began the season with a 66-14 pounding at USC, the assumption was that more of the same would occur this year. But then there were wins over FCS McNeese State and Louisiana (2-3), not exactly a murderer’s row, but still, they were Ws. Then came the close games with Houston and UAB.
The UAB win was significant since that was the No. 2 team in the aforementioned preseason poll.
Actually, if Rice is going to post a winning record, there will be much more consistency needed on offense. Quarterback TJ McMahon (6-0, 195) has completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 1,080 yards and has thrown nine touchdown passes, but also seven interceptions. A junior, McMahon started his career as a walk-on at Mississippi State in 2018 before transferring to Cerritos, a junior college in Norwalk, California.
Last season at Rice he played sparingly, attempting just 20 passes. Now he is hoping to improve with each week of experience.
Here was his game-winning fourth-quarter 6-yard TD pass to Dean Connors that gave the Owls a 28-24 lead against UAB.
This is a team that relies on its resiliency. In the win over UAB, Rice accounted for just 209 yards of total offense. The 209 yards was the lowest total in a win since Rice was held to 191 while defeating Houston in 2004. Yet it’s a good sign to be able to win while struggling offensively.
The defense was the key, while also aiding the offense by scoring on a 4-yard fumble return by Treshawn Chamberlain, a redshirt junior linebacker.
Rice is 81st nationally in passing offense, averaging 230.6 passing yards per game.
As for the defense, it is more of a collective effort than a unit of stars. Junior linebacker Chris Conti, a transfer from Rutgers, is tied for the team-high lead in tackles with 25. Sharing the lead is redshirt sophomore linebacker Myron Morrison. In addition, Morrison also has 4.5 tackles for loss, which is a team-high total that has also been registered by redshirt junior defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu (6-4, 269).
There are plenty of other tests, including this week at FAU (2-4, 1-1). The season ends with facing a dangerous duo of UTSA at home and at North Texas.
There will be other challenges in between, but while it is early, Rice looks closer to being a bowl team than the 10th-best squad in C-USA.