While Conference USA has consistently ranked in the top five conferences in terms of overall strength and competitiveness, the sixth-ranked Owls have supplemented their eight conference series with a host of highly non-conference opponents starting this weekend with their three-game matchup against 28th-ranked Florida International University. The Panthers have made the NCAA Tournament the past two years and feature preseason All-American senior outfielder Pablo Bermudez, who is the Sun Belt Conference's preseason player of the year. First baseman Mike Martinez and designated hitter Rudy Flores all provide power in the lineup. Southpaws R.J. Fondon and Mason McVay will provide a formidable two-thirds of the Panthers' weekend rotation. After the Panthers come to town, New Mexico State University will pay a midweek visit to Reckling Park, led by catcher Zac Fisher. The Aggies led the nation in batting average (.377) last year, were second in runs scored per game with 8.5 and ranked third in walks with 333. While not highly-ranked, they will test the depth of the Owls' pitching staff as Head Coach Wayne Graham looks to preserve pitchers for the weekend series against Dallas Baptist University. The Owls have struggled in the past against the Patriots, going 0-2 against them in the last two seasons. The Patriots are also patient at the plate, with 310 walks, and return a solid Friday night starting pitcher in Jake Johansen as well as five of their eight starting position players from 2011, including their two leading home-run hitters.
Next up is the Minute Maid Classic at Minute Maid Park, in which the Owls will tussle against 13th-ranked University of Texas, the University of Tennessee and Texas Tech University. While Tech features a slugger and a speedster each in junior outfielders Barrett Barnes and Jamodrick McGruder, their pitching staff leaves nothing to fear. The Volunteers will improve with the addition of California State University at Fullerton's Coach Dave Serrano, but they are still regarded as the least-talented team in the Southeastern Conference. The real test will be in Texas, which was informed last weekend that its top starting pitcher, senior Sam Stafford, will undergo shoulder surgery and will be out for the 2012 season. Additionally, sophomore outfielder Cohl Walla was also ruled out for the 2012 campaign after tearing his ACL. Still, the Longhorns feature a bevy of young players, including sophomore third baseman Erich Weiss, and are expected to contend for the Big XII Conference title.
The remaining tests for Rice will come against Pac-12 teams in second-ranked Stanford University and fifth-ranked University of Arizona. The Owls will head to Palo Alto, Calif. to take on the Cardinal in mid-March, which features the best left side of the infield in college baseball in shortstop Kenny Diekroger and third baseman Stephen Piscotty. Right-handed pitcher Mark Appel and left-handed pitcher Brett Mooneyham headline a Stanford pitching rotation that swept the Owls last season and is 1-5 against Rice the last two seasons. Rice split the two-game series against the Wildcats last year, but Arizona returns in 2012 as the nation's most improved team, with sophomore right-handed pitcher Konner Wade coming off a season in which he set a school record for an earned run average mark by a freshman. Freshman catcher Riley Moore will play the other half of the Wildcat battery.
The remaining marquee game on the non-conference schedule is seventh-ranked Texas A&M University. The Owls will travel to Olsen Field for the first time since 2010 and the Aggies will provide a big test for Rice, with right-handed pitcher Michael Wacha and outfielder Tyler Naquin being named to several pre-season All-American teams. Right-handed pitcher Ross Stripling and outfielder Krey Bratsen are also all-conference picks for Texas A&M.
The rest of the non-conference schedule is comprised of midweek games against familiar regional foes, such as Lamar University, Grambling State University, Texas State University, Texas Southern University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Sam Houston State University, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. These games can prove to be traps for Rice, however, as the Owls only went 6-4 in these types of regional midweek games last season.
While Conference USA looks to be competitive enough to get four teams into the NCAA Tournament in May, the Owls will need to compile an exemplary non-conference record to boost their chances for a high seed in the tournament.