Now that the preliminaries are over, the business of choosing a Conference USA West Division champion can start in earnest. A big step toward determining that comes Friday night when Louisiana Tech (3-1 C-USA) visits Rice (2-1) in a crucial league matchup.
The Owls are trying to build some momentum after going 2-3 in their last five, although their most recent game was a 56-16 rout of Wagner. The division’s personality is taking shape, and the two teams — along with Southern Miss — look to be the main candidates for the West crown and a berth in the C-USA Championship Game.
Louisiana Tech at Rice
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Friday)
Spread: Louisiana Tech -13
Three Things to Watch For
1. Passing Fancy
Louisiana Tech's Jeff Driskel has continued his strong play and has already thrown for 2,416 yards and 15 touchdowns, against only four interceptions, while completing 61.6 percent of his attempts. He’ll face a Rice passing defense that has only allowed rival QBs to complete 58.2 percent of their throws but has picked off only two passes, has surrendered 20 TDs through the air and has managed just nine sacks this season. With Bulldog running back Kenneth Dixon healthy after missing two games with an ankle injury, Louisiana Tech has the perfect balance to create opportunities for Driskel.
2. Ground Level
The matchup between Rice’s running game and Tech’s defense against the rush is a classic. The Owls have had four different backs hit 100 yards this season, and their 195 rushing yards per game tops Conference USA. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, boast the conference’s top D against the run, allowing just 98 yards a game, 11th in FBS. If Rice can’t get some room to run, it doesn’t have much of a chance, since while QB Driphus Jackson (1,388 yards, 11 TDs, 4 INTs, 62.9 percent) is solid, the Owls are by no means an aerial circus.
3. Showdown, Take II
On the last day of the 2014 regular season, Rice visited Ruston, La., with the division title on the line and was eviscerated, 76-31. It’s highly unlikely there will be a repeat of that outcome, but Louisiana Tech is a big favorite and appears primed and healthy for a big finish. The Owls have been tested by a rough non-conference schedule that included games with Texas and Baylor and should pose a stiff challenge, especially at home. The winner is in good shape, especially since each faces Southern Miss at home.
The Bulldogs head into this one having won four of five, with their only loss during that stretch to Mississippi State. The return of Dixon (he ran for 64 yards last week) is huge for the season’s final four games, since he provides great balance to Driskel, who has been productive and loves to work with wide receiver Trent Taylor (67 receptions, 5 TDs).
The Owls need to run the football, something that won’t be easy against Louisiana Tech's defense. Jackson will be asked to throw successfully, but the key for Rice is its ability to have a run-based attack complemented by the pass.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 30, Rice 17
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.