A late-season non-conference matchup between the Rice Owls and No. 7 LSU Tigers sizes up as a bowl game for one side and a tune-up game on the way to 10 wins for the other come Saturday in Baton Rouge.
Life has not been easy for first-year Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren in Houston. But, despite the difficulties, the Owls (1-10, 0-7 C-USA) continue to compete against Conference USA opponents. In the last two outings, Rice scrapped with Louisiana Tech before falling 34-26 and kept the contest a one-score game into the fourth against Louisiana Tech before a J’Mar Smith 10-yard touchdown pushed the final tally to 28-13. The Owls defense played tough against the Bulldogs but could not overcome three Shawn Stankavage interceptions.
In Week 11, LSU (8-2, 5-2 SEC) shook off a disappointing loss to No. 1 Alabama by traveling to Arkansas and picking up a 24-17 win. The final score was not indicative of the game; the Tigers controlled both sides of the ball, racking up 359 yards of total offense while holding the Hogs to 216 yards, including 16 on the ground.
Rice at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: LSU -42
Three Things to Watch
1. Joe Burrow's maturation in the pocket
Against Arkansas, Burrow had one of his better games of the season, completing 15-of-21 passes for 195 yards with a score and breaking a two-game streak of throwing an interception. The junior's 71 percent completion rate marked only the second game this season (Ole Miss was the other) that he was above the 50s. With Nick Brossette rushing for 94 yards and Clyde Edwards-Helaire picking up another 57 on the ground, Burrow was not expected to do much against the Razorbacks, but that will change against Texas A&M in Week 13 and come bowl time.
Burrow will need to watch out for Owls true freshman safety Prudy Calderon. Calderon has earned starter status over the last six games, netting 23 stops, five pass breakups and four interceptions, including two against Louisiana Tech. Can Burrow keep up his accuracy against the Owls in preparation for A&M?
2. Rice’s rush defense
The Owls’ record may suggest that the run defense is near the bottom among FBS programs, but this unit plays tougher than one might guess. Rice is allowing 173 yards per game on the ground but has had to overcome 16 interceptions and seven fumbles by the offense. The squad may be small compared to their LSU counterparts, but they are scrappy.
LSU’s ground game comes alive against middle-of-the-road run defenses, averaging 170 yards per game for the season. Expect the running back depth chart to get some time in on Saturday.
3. Staying healthy for Texas A&M
Every college football team in the nation has its health issue woes this late in the season, and LSU is no exception. The good news: Defensive end Glen Logan is back practicing with team, which is important with Breiden Fehoko out (biceps). A big question mark remains at the corner opposite Greedy Williams. Kristian Fulton is out (shoulder), and Kelvin Joseph’s status is questionable, leaving Mannie Netherly, Kary Vincent and Terrence Alexander as possible starters. Expect Alexander to get the start. Safeties John Battle and Eric Monroe have been banged up as well. The Tigers will need a healthy secondary going against Kellen Mond and the Aggies passing attack next week.
The LSU-Rice series on the gridiron dates back to 1915 with the Tigers holding a 37-13-5 all-time lead. Rice last beat LSU (17-7) in 1980 when part of the Southwest Conference but has dropped the last five contests in the series. The regional foes last squared off in 1995, with the Tigers romping to a 52-7 win. Expect something similar in Death Valley on Saturday.
Prediction: LSU 45, Rice 7
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.