At first glance, the 2010-11 athletic year wasn't all that successful for Rice. The football team went 4-8, falling well short of bowl eligibility. Men's hoops went 14-18, their highest win total since 2006-07, but still hardly a successful season. The vaunted baseball team, still less than a decade removed from a national championship, hosted a regional, but failed to win it.
What Rice did win this year was bragging rights over the University of Houston.
The Owl football team beat the Cougars 34-31, bringing the Bayou Bucket to South Main.
Rice got it's first win over UH on the hardwood since the 2006-07 season, with a 79-71 overtime victory at Tudor Fieldhouse. In case that wasn't enough, they ended the regular season with a 72-57 demolition of the Cougars at Hofheinz Pavilion, earning Rice its first season sweep of UH since joining Conference USA.
On the diamond, Rice beat Houston in all six games the teams played this year, including a win in the Conference USA championship game, which eliminated Houston from a shot at NCAA post-season play. Rice baseball has now won oh-my-God-that-can't-be-right fifteen straight games over Houston.
The University of Houston may be too good for the Big XII, but apparently it's not good enough to share a conference with Rice.
Okay, Cougar fans, step back off the ledge. We can talk about this. The season is over, it's time to look to the future.
Football - October 27, 2011 - Rice Owls at Houston Cougars
The bad news for Houston (good news in the interests of the Bayou Bucket being a game about more than just bragging rights) is that Rice returns nearly everyone from the team that topped the Coogs a year ago. They do graduate both of their starting defensive ends, but they also get three-year starting defensive lineman Scott Solomon back, after he missed all of last year with a foot injury. Also returning is quarterback Taylor McHargue, who missed much of last year with an injury, but came back in time to start both of Rice's last two games of the year, and win them both. Quicksilver half back Sam McGuffie has another year of experience. Really, there isn't a position on the field where Rice doesn't look more experienced, and more talented than last year.
That's the bad news for Houston. Basically every other way of looking at 10/27/11 is positive for the Cougars.
Let's take another look at that 34-31 Cougar loss. Despite the defeat, Houston actually had significant edges in first downs (28-19) and total yards (436-344) in that game. Usually, if you do better in those categories than your opponent, you win. Don't get me wrong, Rice outplayed Houston and deserved to win, but it's worth noting that even with a true freshman quarterback starting only his second college game, the Cougars were still able to move the ball against the Owls, on the road.
Speaking of which, this year's contest will be held at Robertson Stadium, a place Rice hasn't won since 2001. Last time these two teams faced each other at the Rob, coming off of a Rice win the year before, the Cougars put up the third-highest point total (73) Rice has allowed in the history of its football program.
Then of course, Case Keenum is back. And while there's no guarantee that he'll stay healthy, between Keenum, a more experienced David Piland, and a healthy Cotton Turner, it would take a catastrophic series of events for Houston to not be significantly more experienced at the QB position when it takes on Rice than it was a year ago.
Prediction: It won't be 73-14, and it may not be as much of a blowout as Cougar fans want, but Houston should be able to re-claim the Bayou Bucket.
With the losses due to graduation and transfers, the Houston Cougars will enter the 2011-12 basketball season with just four available scholarship players who have ever played a minute of college basketball.
The question of whether or not Houston can - gulp - catch up to Rice on the hardwood comes down to how much of an impact Houston's much-heralded crop of newcomers can have. When former Yates High star Joe Young announced that he was coming to Houston, he was immediately hailed as the highest-profile recruit for the Coogs in over a decade. But before he even stepped foot on the court for Houston, he found himself some competition for that title. Young came to UH after signing a Letter of Intent with Providence, and after losing his appeal to be released from the LOI, he was forced to sit out a year.
During that year, power forward and UH-signee Tashawn Thomas was busy having a monster season. He ended up being ranked in ESPN's top 100 recruits of the year, earning himself a four-star rating.
In total, Houston will have seven new scholarship players available for the upcoming season. And while Rice brings in a respectable group on recruits in its own right, they will begin their college careers with considerably less hype and expectation than the group on Cullen Boulevard.
Will head coach James Dickey's group live up to those expectations? Only time will tell. But after all the clashes between Dickey and the holdouts from the Tom Penders regime, and after watching the entire team quit on the season down the stretch, it will be a breath of fresh air for the Cougars to be granted a new start.
Prediction: On paper, Rice absolutely has a better team than Houston this year. But I think the Cougars can scratch out one win over the Owls to split the season series.
The concept of winning the Silver Glove Series is a pipe dream for Houston at this point, but it would be nice to at least win a game against the Owls every once in a while. First-year head coach Todd Whitting succeeded in putting together a respectable team in year one, cobbling together something resembling a bullpen out of a couple of true freshmen (Luke Moran, and the awesomely-named Dustin Fuerst), a reserve infielder (Dakota Dill) and a kicker (Jordan Mannisto). Free baserunners allowed (walks and hit batters) dropped from 393 to 272, and consequently, the Cougars were able to win two more games than they did a year ago, with a significantly less experienced, less talented team, against a tougher schedule.
But for the third straight year, Houston failed to play .500 ball and failed to reach the NCAA post-season, and Whitting's squad went 0-6 against the Owls.
Fortunately, the MLB draft did Houston a huge favor. The only Cougar selected was outfielder Caleb Ramsey, who was graduating anyway. That means that guys like Jared Ray, Jordan Lewis, Mo Wiley and Matt Creel should be back for their senior seasons. Only two of the 14 recruits Whitting signed during the early signing period were drafted, and that class of 14 players is rumored to have increased with more recent verbal commitments, to possibly over 20 newcomers.
Bottom line, all nine pitchers with ERAs below 5.30 should be back for the 2012 Cougars, as many as six consistent offensive producers could return, throw in one of the deepest recruiting classes in recent memory, and one starts wondering how Whitting will find room for all these guys.
Rice was similarly blessed, however. Yes, they do lose all-everything stud Anthony Rendon, but they only saw two recruits selected in the draft, and while juniors Matthew Reckling and Jeremy Rathjen were also picked, Rice beat writer Joseph Duarte is of the opinion that all four will be playing for Rice next year.
Prediction: I don't think Houston has the talent to win the Silver Glove series in 2012, but I'd be surprised if the Cougars are swept again.
I do love my smaller sports, so I will briefly mention that Rice-Houston volleyball should be very competitive this year. Both teams were pretty similarly talented last year (Rice managed to win both head-to-head matches...of course...Houston finished with a better overall and C-USA record), both teams lose talented liberos (Amanda Carson for Houston, Tracey Lam for Rice), but otherwise return most of the other significant contributors.
On the soccer pitch, the Owls and the Cougars battled to a 0-0 draw at Rice last year. Houston finished with better overall and conference records, did so with one of the youngest teams in the country (only three seniors on the roster), and gets to host Rice this time around, after going 8-1-0 at home in 2010. Advantage, Houston.
Then there's women's basketball. Ah, women's basketball, Houston's last refuge of dominance. The Cougars went undefeated in C-USA regular season play in 2010-11, including a pair of victories over the Owls. The magical season, which saw Houston ranked in the top 25 for much of the year, ended in a #8 seed to the NCAA tournament, and a first round loss to West Virginia. Unfortunately, four of five starters graduate from that Cougar squad, while Rice returns Jessica Kuster, who made the C-USA first team as a freshman, Brianna Hypolite, who scored in double figures, and D'Frantz Smart, who set a program record for assists this year. Returning Cougar guards Porsche Landry and Roxanna Button have a big task in front of them if they want to stop the balance of power from shifting across town.
Of course, Houston would no doubt dominate Rice at softball...if Rice were to field a team. Ducking the Coogs in their most dominant sport...convenient, Rice. Very convenient.
So there you have it. Expect a lot of close, hard-fought contests in a lot of different sports when Houston and Rice face off in 2011-12.