David Bailiff needs a winning season or he needs to edit the old resume. It's win or go home. For the Owls it's time to show that the last two seasons have been an mirage and they can compete in CUSA again. What's the best case scenario and what's the worse case scenario? In other words, what could be different than the last two seasons?
The Owls will be better...
The offensive line should push people...Rice returns two all-conference performers, every starter, and eight of ten off the two-deep. The Owls also add some quality in the form of redshirts like Uzoma Osuji. Rice has done a good job recruiting, developing, and stockpiling line talent. This is the deepest and best group the Owls have had in some time. Their tall and big, they look like an FBS line group. They should play like it too.
Calvin Anderson is a returning Honorable Mention All-Conference tackle. He's started every game in his two seasons in West U. Trey Martin is a thumper inside who made All-Conference last season, two years after converting from defensive tackle. 6-6 right tackle Sam Pierce started ten of twelve games last season and 22 of 24 that last two seasons. Guard Peter Godber has started 23 of 24 games. Cory Klinger started eleven games at three different positions. There isn't a more experienced group returning in college football.
One of the quarterbacks might be able to play...We don't suggest entering fall camp without an established starter but for Rice it might work out. Jackson Tyner, J.T. Granato, and Sam Glaesman all took significant snaps in spring ball. Neither won the job in the spring but they all bring unique talents to the table. Tyner has taken more real game snaps after starting two games in 2016. Glaesman looked the best of the three in the spring game and seems to be the most fluid athlete. If one of those three can be good, i.e. bring something to the passing game, perform efficiently, and maybe add a run threat, Rice will have a big piece to the puzzle.
Attacking defense...Brian Stewart was brought in to transform the defense into an attacking 3-4 unit, hopefully one that creates pressure and doesn't give up big plays. Emmanuel Ellerbee is the most accomplished returning defender and should benefit from running more freely in Stewart's system. The key is attacking, the Owls played a catch and release 4-2-5 the last few seasons, breaking instead of bending more often than not. Rice's personnel isn't ideally suited for the defense, but they return a lot of interesting tweeners on the defensive front. Defensive end/linebacker types like Blain Padgett, Brian Womac, and Graysen Schantz. All are undersized for traditional 3-4 defensive ends, but might work as outside linebackers.
If Stewart can find a use for some of those guys, they might reek havoc and cause matchup problems. I don't think they hold up as traditional defensive ends, but as moving targets they can be dangerous. Ready made scheme breakers. Padgett at 6-5, 240 has the wingspan to create issues. Think T.J. Watt types who can standup, set an edge, and rush the passer. Find a rotation of those guys and turn them loose.
Injuries can't be worse...right? The Owls were decimated by injuries in 2016 and for a team like Rice injuries, on any significant level, are a deal breaker. The Owls lost 14 players to season ending injuries and at one point held eleven other players out of game action. Can the Owls stay healthy in 2017? Well, more healthy? If so, then they have a fighting chance for better.
The Owls will be Worse...
If the Owls can't run the ball... Rice needs use the big, beautiful offensive line to control the ball and beat people up. If they don't, there aren't enough edge playmakers to survive. Rice has every variety of running back, including the very talented Samuel Stewart. Emmanuel Eskupa is a 230 pound pile mover who like so many other Owls fought injuries. Austin Walter is the best all-purpose back and a threat in the return game. Last season the Owls averaged 4.22 yards per carry, good or bad enough for 85th in the FBS. In CUSA that number dropped to 3.95 yards per carry and on third downs the Owl average lowered to 2.09 yards per carry.
Receivers are as thin as they seem to be...Rice lost two of its major receiving contributors when Temi Alaka and Nate German left this spring. Alaka was the best deep threat the Owls had and German, though he never really found a home at receiver, was a useful piece. Their transfers added to the attrition via graduation of Zach Wright and Connor Cella. Wright was the Owls' best pass catcher in 2016 and Cella was a big, multi-use target at tight end. We like Kyle Granson a lot, but he needs some help.
Big plays keep happening...Rice's defense was the worst in the country at giving up big plays in 2016. Rice allowed 20 plays of 50 yards or more, and 48 plays of 30 or more yards. That's one of the reasons Brian Stewart has been brought in - to prevent the big play. If the Owls can't stop big plays, their offense doesn't have the firepower to keep up. It's all related, Rice's offense needs to control clock with a bevy of back and a plus offensive line to keep their defense off the field. When their defense is on the field, the Owls need to make opponents work for points. Otherwise its 2016 all over again and David Bailiff can't survive another 2016.