Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 21 Rice.
Chances are you, like me, know of Rice. You know it’s a school, you might know it’s located in Texas (Houston, to be specific), and if you know either of those things, you likely know Rice has a football team. But unless you inexplicably hate the Houston Cougars and every other Texas football team, the Owls really haven’t ever given anyone much of a reason to know anything beyond that. Outside of some recent success, Rice has shuffled about the middle of the national football scene, occasionally stringing together a six- or seven-win season, but otherwise receding back to a perennially sub-.500 squad that boasts as many 10-win seasons as it does no-win seasons (three) and falling out of the nation’s conscious football thought.
Well, no longer, because now the Owls have made the big time, selected by the nation as the No. 21 team in the only poll that matters heading into the 2017 season. Although recent performances may contradict that slot, the people have spoken; the path to the playoff (okay, a bowl) is not a hopeless one.
Rice head coach David Bailiff has climbed the coaching ranks after he started (on his second go-round in the coaching world) as a grad assistant at his alma mater of Texas State and advanced to head coach after a four-year stay at New Mexico. He sacrificed power for conference quality in 2001, when he took over as TCU’s defensive coordinator, impressing the coaching world enough to garner both assistant coach of the year honors and the attention of Rice administrators, who were fresh off losing rising star coach Todd Graham after just one halfway decent season.
Since being handed off to Bailiff in 2007, Rice has gone 56-69, with pairs of 10-win and 3-win seasons highlighting the wide range of play the Owls put on the field year-to-year. During that span, Rice has made four bowl games, a feat celebrating by Owls fans considering past the one bowl Graham took them to in 2006, the last bowl game Rice played in was the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl, a series decommissioned 30 years ago.
But occasional success rarely keeps coaches in the business; athletic directors, pressured by the increasing desire to constantly progress their program’s reputation in hope of increasing their profit margins, are looking for sustained success, meaning coaching search agencies are on speed dial for when a program falters. After combining for 18 wins in 2013 and 2014, the Owls have yet again entered a rut over the past two years, struggling to piece together a total of eight wins in 2015 and 2016 after sloppy offense and injuries took their toll. Now, entering his 11th season, Bailiff can feel the heat—any time a program issues a press release in November to assure fans that the head coach is safe for now, one can assume the following season is make-or-break. Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard, in the same way Texas A&M’s AD issued a public warning for Kevin Sumlin, made as much crystal clear when he dropped the following line in the release: “I have made the expectations for 2017 very clear to Coach.” Now, it’s time to see whether Bailiff’s current group of players can help save his ass.
Bailiff and offensive coordinator Billy Lynch will take on the task with a green quarterback under center, as redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Glaesmann beat out sophomore slingers Jackson Tyner and J.T. Granato for the starting role, according to the Houston Chronicle. Glaesmann hasn’t taken a live snap since he suited up for his Waco high school team two years back; now, his first college snap will come in Australia against a Pac-12 powerhouse in Stanford. It’s hard to imagine a tougher situation to log your first start, but considering Glaesmann beat out two guys with (admittedly limited) experience, his three-touchdown spring game performance, and the fact that Bailiff is possibly putting his future in the young man’s hands means there’s probably at least something there. That, or Tyner and Granato looked like a quicker route to unemployment and Bailiff thought, Fuck it, I’ll trust the rookie.
Glaesmann has two things going for him as the head of the Owls offense—while many of them missed time due to injury in 2016, leading to the team’s 33 sacks allowed in 2016, the Owls have all five offensive linemen back, including two backups boasting starting experience. Their new quarterback won’t be the only one pleased about this news either, as running back Sam Stewart will step into the starting role after missing five games due to a torn ACL last season; he still racked up 479 rushing yards on just 75 carries (he was the backup at the time), along with six total touchdowns. Rice will be counting on a strong ground game to help bring Glaesmann along, so having that potential in both the backfield and the big men blocking for it is a plus. Unfortunately, Stewart and his experienced blockers are about all the good stuff the offense has to offer.
Rice lost both starting wideouts and its starting tight end, as well as graduate senior receiver Temi Alaka, who transferred to South Florida. This means Glaesmann will have to develop chemistry with juniors Lance Wright and Parker Smith and sophomore Kylen Granson, receivers that, like him, will be adjusting to life as an every-down Group of Five college football player. That said, the wideouts don’t have much individual pressure on them considering no single Owls receiver topped 500 yards last season. If even one wideout manages to do so this season, with a new quarterback projected to be the worst in Conference USA (mainly because nobody’s seen him actually play), that’s enough of a pleasant surprise.
New defensive coordinator Brian Stewart’s job will, somehow, be even harder than crafting an offense with no returning skills players—he saves the stress of replacing starters with eight coming back; in return, Stewart has to transform one of the worst defensive units in the nation, which is a year removed from allowing 37.9 points per game. Stewart’s task is a tall one, and one that will almost assuredly not be completed within two or even three years, so it helps, then, that he’ll have a rock of a middle linebacker in senior Emmanuel Ellerbee to lean on in his initial season. Ellerbee was second in the conference in total tackles with 118 and first at 10.7 tackles per game as a junior. The senior linebacker and seven other returning starters spent the summer adjusting to life under a new system, as Stewart’s opted to implement a 3-4 defense in hopes of placing some more athletic safety-linebacker types on the edges to increase their turnover production after last year’s dreadful performance—the Owls finished dead last in Conference USA with eight total turnovers; they ranked 111th in the nation with a -7 turnover margin.
Having a stud in the middle is a spoil, but the fact remains that Stewart, the former DC for the Dallas Cowboys, has eight guys who couldn’t properly execute a shitty 4-2-5 defensive system that Bailiff helped perfect at TCU; unless the 3-4 change unlocks some previously unknown potential and has Rice defenders actually fitting their gaps and not forgetting about the opposing receiver streaking down the sideline, attaining improvement but not actual success seems to be the Owls’s fate for 2017.
Emmanuel Ellerbee is your prototypical senior middle linebacker. Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing in at 235 pounds, the Houston native tackles damn near anything that comes up or across the middle of the field, and like most modern MLBs, he has the speed to go sideline to sideline to hawk down any backs or slot receivers looking to pick up some extra yardage in the flats. He was Conference USA’s top solo tackler, with 70 in 2016, earning him first-team all-conference honors. This year, the Owls will rely on him to bring along new linebackers like starting MIKE D.J. Green while also putting up the numbers that saved Rice from being No. 128 in scoring defense.
Let’s start small—can Rice win the C-USA West division? Ahead of them are UTEP, North Texas, Southern Miss, UTSA, and Louisiana Tech. (Assume UAB is going to be ass in its first year back from the dead.) The LaTech Bulldogs won the division last year and appear to be favorited to repeat; the rest of the division is extremely soft, in both terms of teams returning proven talent and being historically reliable. Of course, so is Rice. Given the state of the offense (green quarterback and receivers) as well as the defense (typically more break than bend), the answer to the C-USA West question is probably not. I believe the defense will take a step forward under new leadership, but the Owls, at best, seem to have five wins in them; maybe they’ll surprise me. After all, Rice went 3-9 in 2007 then turned around and finished 10-3 in 2008, so what the hell do I know anyway?
Bailiff is a born-and-bred Texas football coach: He rose through the high school and college ranks like pretty much every big name in Texas collegiate coaching, finally making his breakthrough when he hooked up with Gary Patterson at TCU and fielded one of the nation’s top defenses in 2002. He has no outstanding dick complaints against his name; in fact, his football team—thanks to mediocrity and a phenomenal marching band—have only ever drawn attention when their big uglies concoct a genius touchdown celebration, the time the 4-foot-9 running back actually played, or any time their marching band trolls the shit out of some top-tier visiting team with a stain on its record, such as USC or Baylor. It’d be swell if Bailiff could string together a pair of winning seasons without taking a three-season reprieve, but from what I can tell he’s not a dick, just a guy struggling with consistency.
Aug. 26: Stanford
Sept. 9: @ UTEP
Sept: 16 @ Houston
Sept. 23: FIU
Sept. 30: @ Pitt
Oct. 7: Army
Oct. 21: @ UTSA
Oct. 28: La Tech
Nov. 4: @ UAB
Nov. 11: Southern Miss
Nov. 18: @ Old Dominion
Nov. 25: North Texas