For the first time in 56 years, the Rice Owls football team will open the season as the outright defending conference champions when they visit South Bend, Ind., to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Aug. 30 in a game that will be nationally televised on NBC.
The Owls, who beat Marshall in the Conference USA (C-USA) championship game in December, went on to play in their second consecutive bowl game for only the second time in school history since the 1960-61 season. The Owls lost 44-7 to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl Dec. 31 in Memphis, Tenn.
Rice heads into the 2014 season on a roll, both academically, by graduating 100 percent of its players from last year’s team, and geographically, by playing on the field where the Owls have won 15 of their last 19 games dating back to a 44-17 win over Southern Miss on Oct. 27, 2012, and with a home winning streak now at nine games. The Owls went 7-1 in conference play and 10-4 overall last season.
“We’re setting our goals high this year,” said David Bailiff, head football coach and 2013 C-USA Coach of the Year and a finalist for the Paul “Bear” Bryant Coach of the Year Award. “We expect bowl games, we expect conference championships and we expect 100 percent graduation. I think this is something that we can do with this football team again. We have the opportunity here to really develop into a fine football team.”
The Owls will have to do that with new talent moving up on the depth chart. The team does have leadership and experience: Six offensive and five defensive players are returning from the C-USA championship squad.
“We have our goal set of going to a third straight bowl,” Bailiff said. “These are exciting times at Rice football. … It’s up to this senior class. They want to leave their legacy like that senior class did last year.”
“We want to be able to be that redeem team,” said redshirt junior defensive tackle Christian Covington, who will graduate in May. “We know it’s not going to be easy. We know we’re going to have to work hard for it. Once you have a taste of success, you want more of it.”
“We’ve got 17 seniors, and we’re excited about this senior class,” 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 players back on offense, defense and special teams.”
One of those core players, junior quarterback Driphus Jackson, will be asked to step in and lead the Owls under center after losing four-year starter Taylor McHargue to graduation.
“Driphus has been heavily involved in this offense for three straight years,” Bailiff said. “He’s confident. He has a complete understanding of what we’re trying to do.
“You’re just proud that a quarterback is willing to work as hard as he has and wait his turn,” he said. “This is his team now, and he’s got two years. We’re excited to see what Driphus can do for us. One of the reasons we’re feeling so confident going into this season is because McHargue started for us for four years, but Driphus has played a lot. Every time he’s gotten into a football game, good things have happened for Rice.”
“Explosive, that’s the word that we want to define ourselves as,” Jackson said. “We don’t want to be known as the team that puts up 23 or 20 points a game. We want to light up the scoreboard with deep balls. We want to light up the scoreboard with good runs from our running backs. And we want to light up the scoreboard with good blocking.
Jackson and the 2014 Owls will be tested early this season when they travel to Notre Dame week one and then Texas A&M the following week in College Station, Texas. The Owls-Aggies game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN2.
“We’re going to be challenged early (in the season),” Bailiff said. “The team is really excited about going into South Bend and playing those guys. If you expect to be a premier football team in the country, you need to open your season with teams like that. It’s still all about winning a Conference C-USA championship, but playing Notre Dame, playing Texas A&M helps us in those (conference) games. When you play the best, it makes you a better football team.”
The Owls will open C-USA conference play at home against Old Dominion Sept. 20. To purchase tickets, call the Rice ticket office at 713-522-OWLS (6957) or order online through Ticketmaster.