Rice’s football team has won the Bayou Bucket from neighboring Houston, but more importantly, last week’s 43-41 double overtime home win over the Cougars could have earned the Owls some long-anticipated respect.
Rice hasn’t garnered much football attention lately. Even when the Owls competed in a bowl game last year, there was sort of an asterisk with the appointment.
Teams usually need at least a .500 record to receive bowl consideration, but since there were more bowls than .500 plus teams last year, the Owls at 5-7 got the invitation.
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Rice earned the spot because it had the highest national ranking in Academic Progress Rate scores among other 5-7 teams. Imagine, academic excellence helping a team advance in football. Now that’s a novel concept.
Rice then lost to Southern Mississippi, 38-24 in the Lending Tree Bowl to finish its season 5-8.
That was the eighth straight sub-.500 season for the Owls.
The program entered this season with optimism, mainly due to the arrival of JT Daniels, the former 5-star quarterback who has experienced a nomadic college football career.
He began at USC, went to Georgia, and last year played for West Virginia.
Now Daniels is at Rice, where he has already earned an early-season accolade. On Monday, he was named the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week.
Daniels completed 28 of 41 passes and matched his career high with 401 passing yards in the double-OT win over Houston. He threw three TD passes and one interception.
This is a unique rivalry since Houston and Rice are only separated by about four miles. Yet on the football field, they have recently been more than a few miles apart. Houston had won the previous seven meetings, and most weren’t close, although last year the Cougars took a 34-27 win over Rice.
What is interesting is that Houston left the American Athletic Conference this year for the Big 12, and Rice joined the AAC after competing in Conference USA.
With the arrival of Daniels, Rice looked to have one of the top offensives in the ACC, but in the summer, standout receiver Bradley Rozner decided to join North Carolina State as a graduate transfer.
He played four seasons at Rice, and last year led the Owls in receiving yards (876) and receiving touchdowns (10). Rozner hasn’t gotten off to the biggest of starts for NC State with three receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown in the first two games.
The thought of Rozner teaming with redshirt junior Luke McCaffrey and catching lasers from Daniels had the Rice faithful excited.
At least they still have McCaffrey, who had seven receptions for 99 yards and two scores against Houston. McCaffrey comes from a great football family. His father Ed was a former NFL receiver, and his brother Christian can be seen running to daylight for the San Francisco 49ers.
Rice is now 1-1, but the opening loss can be explained – it was a 37-10 defeat at Texas, a team that impressed a national television audience by winning 34-27 at Alabama last week.
Think about that – Rice allowed just three more points against Texas than Alabama.
Against Texas, Rice actually took a 3-0 lead, only to relinquish the next 37 points. Daniels completed 14 of 26 for 149 yards, one touchdown (to McCaffrey) and two interceptions. Not exactly the type of debut he was hoping for, but Daniels made up for it against Houston.
It was Rice’s first win over a Power Five school since beating Kansas, 24-13, in 2013.
While we’re at it, even though Houston is no longer a Group of Five school, one quick observation of the Cougars – they may not come close to matching last year’s win total during an 8-5 season.
Houston squeezed out a 17-14 opening win over UTSA after picking off quarterback Frank Harris three times. Now, Houston will play its first Big 12 game this week when the Cougars travel to TCU. There aren’t many automatic Ws on this Houston schedule.
As for Rice, this week the Owls host FCS Texas Southern before beginning its AAC schedule.
The toughest part of the schedule is a three-game stretch beginning Oct. 28 that has home games with Tulane and SMU followed by a matchup at UTSA.
Still, last week’s win against Houston showed that this Rice team could be more competitive. And this year, may earn a bowl bid sans asterisk.