Rice ended the 2013 season with a 10-4 overall record and a 7-1 Conference USA mark, which included the Conference USA championship after a convincing bout with Marshall in the title game. The Owls went on win streaks of five games and three games, with a loss to North Texas breaking them up. The team was dismantled by SEC power Mississippi State, 44-7, in the Liberty Bowl.
Taylor McHargue started at quarterback for the Owls and tossed 2,345 passing yards and 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions last year, while star running back Charles Ross ran wild with 1,320 yards and 15 touchdowns. The offense as a unit managed 405.6 yards per contest and 415 first downs on the season, including the running game's spectacular 227.4 yards per game.
David Bailiff, who returns for his eighth year as the head coach in 2014, has accrued a record of 40-48 at Rice and lost his first bowl game following the C-USA championship in 2013.
OFFENSE: The reigning conference champions have some retooling to do on offense entering the 2014 season. Both McHargue and Ross are gone, which means the top two sources of scoring production will need to be replaced. Rice returns six offensive starters altogether.
Of the two backup quarterbacks that saw time on the field in 2013, junior Driphus Jackson had the most attempts with 16. He didn't throw a touchdown pass, but was intercepted once. Another possible route for the Owls to head in would be to give sophomore Tyler Stehling a shot. Stehling has size going for him, standing at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds. But after a C-USA title run, the Owls will likely opt for experience at the most important position on the field.
Losing both McHargue and Ross in the same offseason could be devastating. Ross, who carried the ball 211 times in 2013, was backed up by Jowan Davis, who now enters his sophomore campaign. Davis rushed the ball 95 times for 488 yards and three touchdowns. He's the favorite in line to start, but could certainly get a push from Darik Dillard, who ran 82 times last year for 400 yards and three scores.
Thankfully for whichever quarterback wins the starting job, he'll have some familiar receivers on the other end of his passes. Jordan Taylor, who led Rice last season with 55 catches for 848 yards and eight touchdowns, is back for his senior season, while junior Dennis Parks (29 receptions, 508 yards and three scores) will likely man the opposite side of the field. Tight end Connor Cella is back as well. And with a healthy majority of the offensive line still intact from last year, protection for the new quarterback may not be a problem.
"We are excited about this senior class and excited about this football team," Bailiff said. "We graduated 25 seniors last year, but we have a lot of talent throughout the program right now. We have a core group of starters back on offense, defense and special teams."
DEFENSE: Like Rice's offense, its defense will be operating this season without its top two performers from a year ago. Both Michael Kutzler and Paul Porras, who were the leading tacklers last season, are gone, but there's still plenty of talent to go around.
Free safety Julius White is the team's top returning tackler with 67 stops in 2013. He brings back nine pass breakups and two interceptions to a defensive backfield that should once again be strong. Cornerback Bryce Callahan returns after leading the Owls in pass breakups last season (10), and senior Malcolm Hill may make a change from his former strong safety position to corner.
Up front, the Owls are led by the dangerous Christian Covington. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive tackle had 51 tackles last season with 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and four quarterback hurries. He was named to the Conference USA first team as a sophomore, and he's hoping his junior year will be even better.
The Owls return six defensive starters, but have plenty of veteran players that will step in and fill the role of departed seniors from last year. Juniors Brian Nordstrom and Derek Brown could each move into starting roles on the defensive line, while senior Gabe Baker may take over Hill's safety spot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Rice will have to replace kicker Chris Boswell, who booted 66.7 percent of his field goal tries through last year (14-of-21) with a long of 56 yards. Redshirt freshmen Taylor Knopf and Anthony Price will battle it out for Boswell's spot.
Punter James Farrimond received the lion's share of work a year ago, and he'll be counted on again this season. Farrimond sent 71 punts flying in 2013 and averaged 42.1 yards per kick. His long was 66 yards and he downed 15 inside an opponents' 20-yard line.
OUTLOOK: Rice kept a pretty nice pace with Marshall last season, and ultimately defeated the Thundering Herd in the conference title game. There's still room for improvement past that point, but there's also a lot of room for a downfall.
That's not to say what Rice will accomplish this season will be minimal, but there are a lot of holes the Owls have to patch before they can start thinking about another conference title. And it starts with replacing the two biggest playmakers on a formidable 2013 offense.
"We're setting our goals high this year," Bailiff said. "We talked last night at the team meeting. We expect bowl games, we expect conference championships and we expect 100 percent graduation. And I think that is something we can do with this football team again."
Rice went ahead and scheduled a particularly tough non-conference schedule for 2014 as well. The Owls begin the regular season with two road games - one against Notre Dame in the first week and one at Texas A&M the next. Remember, this is an Aggies team that stomped on the Owls last season (although this year they'll be without Johnny Manziel).
To end the month of September, Rice will play C-USA foes Old Dominion and Southern Miss, then will wrap up non-conference play with games against Hawaii and Army before launching back into league matchups. The Owls have to travel to Marshall on Nov. 15, and will host North Texas (the team that beat them last year) and UTSA.
It will be a long road back to the top for Rice, especially with such a tough schedule on the horizon. But don't necessarily count the Owls out just yet.