Before Rice football’s game against the Texas Longhorns last week, Head Coach David Bailiff stressed the importance of that game was to prepare for conference play. This week, Rice will open their Conference USA schedule against the University of North Texas.

According to Bailiff, this week’s game will be the first step toward Rice’s ultimate goal of winning the conference for the first time since 2013.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Bailiff said. “Winning Conference USA.”

The Owls (1-1) will travel to Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas to take on the Mean Green (0-1). Founded in 1890 as a teachers’ college, the University of North Texas enrolls 29,723 undergraduates. The football program has won two Division I bowl games in its history. Most recently, the Mean Green won the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2013 to cap a 9-4 season. Although the North Texas football program began in 1953, Rice and North Texas did not play each other until 1988.

In their sixth meeting with North Texas since that 1988 game, Rice will attempt to bounce back from a 42-28 loss to the Texas Longhorns Saturday night.

According to Bailiff, the loss, though disappointing, provided some positives to carry into this week’s game.

“Even in the loss, we can learn a lot of lessons to improve this football team,” Bailiff said. “I think this is [a game] that will strengthen our resolve.”

North Texas will be looking to make improvements of its after a season-opening 31-13 loss to Southern Methodist University. Senior quarterback Andrew McNulty threw for 128 yards and ran for 50 more and senior running back Antoinne Jimmerson ran for 40 yards and a touchdown as the Mean Green led 13-10 entering the fourth quarter. The defense, however, surrendered 21 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to send the Mean Green to their 16th season opening loss in the last 19 seasons.

North Texas’ roster has changed significantly since a 4-8 season last year. They return five starters from an offense that ranked No. 79 in Division I in points per game. The returners include McNulty, senior tight end Marcus Smith, senior wide receiver Carlos Harris, junior wide receiver Darvin Kidsy, and sophomore center Kaydon Kirby. The defense, however, returns only two starters: senior cornerback Kenny Buyers and junior linebacker Fred Scott.

This new-look North Texas defense will be tasked with stopping an Owls offense that has averaged 502.5 yards in its first two games, including 314.5 rushing yards per game.

Freshman running back Samuel Stewart said that practice with the other Rice running backs has led to this success.

“It’s a competition everyday,” Stewart said. “Everyday in practice we’re pushing each other and making sure we’re good in pass protection, ball security, making our reads in the zone game, all of that.”

Stewart was not the only one to stress the value of practice. Last week, Bailiff noted that the players were excited to begin watching film and practicing for the Texas game. After a spirited performance this past weekend, Bailiff said he hopes the team can keep its motivation high.

“We’ve got to go to North Texas with the same demeanor and the same effort we displayed [against Texas],” Bailiff said.

Rice will try to ride that effort to a victory in its Conference USA opener this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas. The game will be televised nationally on Fox College Sports.