The Rice Owls are a program that has been trying to become one of the elite programs in Conference-USA and in 2008 following a 10-3 season after what many would say is one of the best seasons in Owls history, everyone thought they could be on their way.
Fast forward three seasons later and head coach David Bailiff, likely on the hot-seat is trying to resurrect his program yet again. Following that impressive 10-3 season, Bailiff has led the owls to a 10-26 mark including a 4-8 campaign last season. His Owls will have a daunting task in 2012, with a hefty schedule ahead; it could be an up-hill battle for both Bailiff and his Owls.
The Owls return five starters on offense led by versatile WR/RB Sam McGuffie who could be the catalyst that ignites this offense to new levels. The problem McGuffie will have is staying healthy. Last season the speedy playmaker was hampered by injuries and only saw action in seven games for the Owls and never really found his groove. He finished the season with 38 carries for 158 yards and one touchdown. McGuffie also chipped in on the passing front hauling in nine passes for 72 yards and one score. He will look to play a much bigger role in 2012.
Redshirt junior quarterback Taylor McHargue heads into camp as the favorite to take snaps this fall. Last season McHargue showed he has the ability to make plays both with his arm and his legs, but will need to be more consistent in 2012 if the Owls hope to reach new levels on offense.
Two of McHargue's favorite targets are tight end Luke Wilson and wide receiver Vance McDonald who combined for 72 receptions, 845 yards and eight touchdowns. The sure-handed pass catchers will likely be the go-to targets for McHargue entering the season.
First year defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond takes over the Owls defense after serving as the teams cornerbacks coach in 2011 and will have plenty of challenges on his plate entering the season.
Defense for the Owls last season virtually didn't exist. The Owls allowed their opponents to put up an average of 462 yards of total offense in each game throughout the course of the season. Their opponents were able to run the ball for 183 yards-per-game on average and passed the ball for 278 yards-per-game on average. As much as the offense needs to improve, the defense needs to improve even more.
Remember that rainy Thursday night last season when Case Keenum threw a touchdown pass to just about every Cougar on the sideline, the same night Houston put up 73 points? That onslaught of offense came at the expense of the Owls defense.
With that said, there is definitely room for improvement.
The Owls return the sixth leading tackler in all of Conference-USA last season in Cameron Nwosu who racked up 108 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, one sack and two fumble recoveries, both of which he returned for six.
The Owls will likely have an insurgence of youth among their defense and will need veterans like Nwosu to step up and take charge of the defense.
The Owls also have the luxury of returning both starting cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Phillip Gaines which should go a long way in helping shore up the pass defense.
What would really push the Owls to improvement on defense is the ability to get consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. Senior defensive end Jared Williams returns as the Owls most experienced end, and would love to improve upon his six sacks last season.
The word of the year for the Owls will be 'Improvement'. They will need to see a lot of improvement on both sides of the ball in 2012 if they hope to turn the corner and contend for the Conference-USA crown.
They'll have a bit of cohesiveness on offense having the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008 and new defensive coordinator Thurmond was a part of the Owls defense in 2011, so there is already a bit of familiarity there for the players.
They'll face a fairly challenging schedule much like they had last year with non-conference clashes against UCLA and Kansas where they'll have a lot to prove. If they can get on the right track early and stay on track, they could find that success they've been looking for since 2008.