The 2017 season was a major disappointment for the Rice Owls. David Bailiff, who led Rice to 10 wins and the Conference USA championship in 2013, was relieved of his duties after his last team finished 1-11. Riding a 10-game losing streak, the Owls turned to former Stanford assistant Mike Bloomgren to turn things around. The first-time head coach has an early opportunity for win No. 1 as the Owls welcome FCS foe Prairie View A&M to Rice Stadium as part of the Week 0 slate that will kick off the 2018 college football season.
Prairie View A&M vs. Rice
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 25 at 7 p.m. ET
Three Things to Watch
1. New head coaches
Rice and Prairie View will both be led by first-year head coaches. Bloomgren, who served as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for David Shaw at Stanford, spent five years with the Cardinal and four with the New York Jets. Given his background, we can expect the Owls to operate out of a physical, pro-style offense with fullbacks and tight ends playing a much larger role than in years past.
Eric Dooley, who tutored three straight SWAC Offensive Players of the Year as the offensive coordinator at Grambling State, earned his first head coaching gig after an impressive tenure with the Tigers. Dooley’s Grambling offenses consistently ranked among the best in the SWAC and reached No. 4 nationally at the FCS level in 2015. The former Grambling receiver, who played for the legendary Eddie Robinson from 1985-88, has spent more than two decades coaching in the conference. Before returning to Grambling, Dooley spent three seasons as the OC at Arkansas-Pine Bluff and served in multiple roles across 14 seasons as an assistant at Southern University.
2. Quarterback competitions
Like the two head coaches, both Rice and Prairie View are in a period of transition at the quarterback position. The Owls started three different QBs last season, and while junior Jackson Tyner, (598 passing yards, made one start) and sophomore Sam Glaesmann (500 passing yards, six starts) are both back the latter has made the switch to wide receiver. The other quarterback was Miko Smalls, but he departed following a promising true freshman campaign. Bloomgren has added Vanderbilt graduate transfer Shawn Stankavage to the mix but Tyner is expected to get the opening nod. Whoever is under center needs to provide better production compared to last year when Tyner and Glaesmann combined for 11 interceptions and neither surpassed a 48 percent completion rate. Glaesmann’s three touchdown passes led the team.
The Panthers also have an ongoing competition. Lavell McCullers and Jalen Morton are the front-runners to replace Neiko Hollins, who made a surprising decision to transfer to junior college after throwing for 1,853 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2017.
3. Roster reconstruction
Bloomgren has a tall task. Not only did Rice finish 1-11 in 2017, the new head coach must replace many key contributors from last year’s squad. In addition to Smalls, who led the Owls in passing (623 yards) and ranked third in rushing (308), Rice must replace three starters on the offensive line, including three-year starter Calvin Anderson, who transferred to Texas.
Defensively, the Owls will be without each of their top five tacklers from 2017, including linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee, who racked up 120 stops on his way to All-Conference USA honors, and Brian Womac, who led the league with 10 sacks. Defensive back J.T. Ibe and defensive lineman Preston Gordon opted to transfer, and the program also suffered a devastating loss when defensive end Blaine Padgett passed away in the spring.
Rice has some building blocks in place. Linebacker Martin Nwakamma, defensive lineman Roe Wilkins and nose tackle Zach Abercrumbia headline five returning starters on defense. Receiver Aaron Cephus, a 6-foot-4 standout who averaged 24.9 yards per catch and led the team with 622 receiving yards and five touchdowns last year, should provide a big-play target for the new quarterback. Sam Pierce, who has made 24 career starts, is a veteran presence for the offensive line. The running back position is among the deepest and most talented groups on the team with likely new starter Emmanuuel Esukpa (272 rushing yards, one touchdown) joined by 2017 leading rushers Nashon Ellerbe (409 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and Austin Walter (400 rushing yards, four TDs). The backfield could be down one man for this game with Ellerbe expected to miss the opener because of an injury.
Simply put, FBS programs are supposed to beat FCS teams. We should expect Rice, with its larger scholarship numbers and more talented roster, to prevail in Bloomgren’s debut. Upsets happen in college football, and Rice is widely considered one of the weakest FBS squads in the nation, but if the Owls don’t take care of business against Prairie View, it will be a very long season.
Prediction: Rice 28, Prairie View A&M 17
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.