After a 44-28 loss to the University of Southern Mississippi, the Rice University football team will head into its bye week winless, sporting an 0-5 record. The team has alarmingly taken steps back in numerous key categories; most embarrassingly, the team ranks dead last among all Division I schools in yards allowed per game (567) and 120th in points allowed per game (40.2). With the team in the midst of a second straight down season and facing the heightened expectations that come with football facility upgrades, the time has come for Head Coach David Bailiff to go.
Coming off a disappointing 2015 season, the Owls were determined to return to a bowl game after failing to do so for the first time in four years. They were plagued a year ago by a series of issues that they saw as correctable: An excessive number of penalties, a defense prone to giving up the big play and inconsistent quarterback play were among them. Head coach David Bailiff repeatedly said during the offseason that he “liked the way his team worked” when asked about the progress his team made. He furthermore expressed in practically every interview that there is “power in failure” when asked how his team was handled failing to qualify for a bowl game. The team underwent a change at quarterback but had otherwise retained nearly all of its starters and key contributors from a year ago. The thinking was, with another year of development, the Owls would be competitive within Conference USA (C-USA) and be in the thick of the hunt for a bowl game. This was an opinion shared by many, as the Owls were picked to finish third within the C-USA West division.
Fast forward to the present, and what has been made clear thus far is that the Owls have regressed from their disappointing season a year ago. Whereas the defense a year ago was prone to giving up big plays and was one of the most porous in Division I college football, it is now, by yardage allowed, the most porous in Division I college football. The pass defense is even more remarkably bad: the Owls rank last in Division I in yards allowed for pass attempt with 11.9, while the second-to-last team in this category gives up 9.2 yards per attempt. The team is still plagued by penalties, as they are the fifth-most penalized team in C-USA after spending years as being one of the least penalized teams in the conference. They have not led often this season, but in a game against North Texas in which they raced out to a 17-0 lead, they also demonstrated a lack of a killer instinct to finish off the game, ultimately losing it in double overtime.
Most frustratingly, the team appears hell-bent on implementing an offense predicated on stretching the field horizontally and throwing a large number of passes at or beyond the line of scrimmage, even though this strategy has been extremely unsuccessful in 4 of the 5 games in which the team has played. Whether the issue is extreme confidence in their skill position players to make plays in space or a lack of confidence in their quarterback play, the Owls have shown a refusal to adapt from this strategy, forcing their offense into numerous third-and-long situations that they are not built to manage. Perhaps the offense will look better as they play inferior opponents within conference play, but it has undoubtedly not been good enough to field a competitive team.
It not only matters that Rice has lost; it matters how Rice has lost. And it is through this lens that one must analyze Rice’s football team. Given the conference in which the Owls play, the academic standards to which they must adhere in recruiting and the size of the university’s alumni network in general, they cannot reasonably expect to defeat some of the opponents that they have played in years past, such as Baylor University, the University of Notre Dame and Texas A&M University. The standards to which they should always be held, however, include the following: discipline on the field, adaptive offensive game plans and sound tackling, to name a few. In their games this year, the Owls simply have not played up to those standards. As Bailiff says so often to the media, “Everything we do here at Rice, we have to do it precise,” which is exactly what his team has failed to do for the better part of the last two seasons.
As one of the longest-tenured coaches within Conference USA, Bailiff has restored respectability to the Rice football program, bringing them to four bowl games and winning a Conference USA championship in 2013. That said, the 2016 Owls look like a shell of their former selves. They are no longer as disciplined a team, nor as talented, and they do not execute nearly like they did in previous year. In other words, his team has lost the identity that made them successful in years past, and it is not a stretch to say that this program could begin to lose the respect it has earned if that does not change. Bailiff was certainly the right coach for the program once he was brought on board from Texas State University in 2007. That said, his philosophy--namely, his boundless optimism--no longer seems to be reaching the team, and his staff continues to make the same coaching mistakes game after game. A lack of discipline and poor utilization of the talent on the team must ultimately fall on the coaches. After two years of failing to reach expectations and blatant coaching errors, it is time for Bailiff and his staff to go, by the end of the season at the latest.
Looking toward the remainder of the season, the Owls will have consecutive home games after their bye week against the University of Texas, San Antonio and Prairie View A&M University. One can only hope that the bye week can serve as a “reset button” of sorts for a program that has not threatened its goals for the season to this point. With their bowl game hopes all but shot, we will learn a lot in the weeks to come as the team is playing primarily for pride and for roles next season. Rice football has lost its way, and we will see if the team can regain their lost identity during what remains of the season.