Despite coming from a UH supporter, the titular question is by no means meant to be sarcastic or demeaning towards the Owls. You could argue that every team on Rice's non-conference football schedule in 2011 is better than every team on Houston's. The Owls will almost certainly be improved, talent-wise from the team that had to win its last two games to get to 4-8 in 2010. But with a schedule that features two teams each from the Big XII and Big Ten, and just five total home games, will the improvement show up in Rice's win total?
In 2008, head coach David Bailiff oversaw Rice's first 10-win season since 1949, and he can claim two straight home wins over crosstown rivals Houston, but he has to be feeling some pressure to finally prove that he can win with his own players. While the schedule doesn't do the Owls many favors, with one of the most experienced rosters in the NCAA, the time to make an impact is now on South Main.
Getting the Owls to their third bowl game in six years (after Rice took a pass on post-season football for 44 years) would be a significant step in the right direction. To get to the magical six-win plateau, the Owls will absolutely have to beat expected C-USA weak sisters Memphis, UTEP and Tulane at home. Can they scratch out three more wins on top of that? Much of that depends on whether they can avoid a potentially killer 0-4 non-conference slate. To do so, they'll have to break a program 21-game losing stream against schools currently in AQ conferences. (Last win: a 15-13 victory over a 2001 Duke team that went winless.)
Without further ado, let's break down their chances.
September 3, at Texas-Austin (5-7 in 2010, 2-6 Big XII)
Rice will win because: The Owls lost at home to the Longhorns last year by a 34-17 score, but actually played them even outside of a disastrous second quarter. While the game's location rotates back to Austin this year, it's not like the Owls were really playing with a home-field advantage last year, in a stadium they weren't used to, in front of a highly pro-Longhorn crowd.
In last year's season-opener, Rice quarterback-halfback combo of Taylor McHargue and Sam McGuffie were playing in their first games as Owls. The duo got significantly better as the year progressed (McHargue was in his best form to end the season after recovering from an injury) and will be better suited to face the Longhorns this time around.
Texas-Austin QB Garrett Gilbert, on the other hand, only fell apart as the year progressed, so much so that he's no longer guaranteed a starting job. I guess that 12-21 career TD-INT ratio isn't winning him much support. The run game which 'Horn head coach Mack Brown promised would be revamped last year (it wasn't) will likely feature a true freshman in his first collegiate game this time around. The Longhorn defense will be minus four NFL draftees from a year ago.
Rice won't win because: The score of last year's game made that contest look closer than it was, with the Longhorns dominating the game in the trenches (rushing for 4.3 yards per carry to Rice's pitiful 2.1). The Longhorns still recruit like the Longhorns, and Rice still recruits like Rice, so you know that the Longhorns are likely to have the overall size and talent edge.
I mean, c'mon, Rice never beats Texas-Austin.
September 10, vs Purdue (4-8 in 2010, 2-6 Big Ten)
Rice will win because: The Boilermakers just aren't that good. They've had three straight losing seasons, with a combined 3-12 road record during that span, and they lose their best player (Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and 1st Team All-American Ryan Kerrigan) from last year's mediocre team, as well as starting quarterback Rob Henry to an ACL tear. The top two running backs from last year are gone, as well.
And I kinda doubt that those Northern boys are gonna be ready for a 2:30 PM kickoff in Houston in early September.
Rice won't win because: Purdue is one of the few teams in college football with more experience than the Owls heading into the 2011 season, the losses of stars Kerrigan and Henry notwithstanding. Speedy halfback Ralph Bolden (second team all-Big Ten in 2009) is back after missing the 2010 season with a knee injury. The offensive line has size and experience, and the defense returns nine starters.
Heat and humidity or no, Purdue will push Rice around in the trenches all game long. It's not like the weather has helped Rice in early-season losses to mediocre AQ foes Vanderbilt and Northwestern in the last couple years.
September 24, at Baylor (7-6 in 2010, 4-4 Big XII)
Rice will win because: They gave Baylor a decent game of it last year, despite McHargue missing the game due to injury, and the less mobile Fanuzzi taking some big sacks. An in-his-prime McHargue probably could have carved up a lousy Baylor secondary that isn't getting any better after graduating nearly everybody. Baylor coach Art Briles is getting to the point where he'll have to start winning games with defensive players that he recruited himself, and I think we all know about how well that's going to go.
As much as people focus on Robert Griffin III, they tend to overlook the monster season that running back Jay Finley had in 2010. Where are the Bears going to replace his 1218 yards rushing on 6.2 ypc and 12 scores? Think RG3's production might suffer without Finley there to give opposing coordinators something else to think about?
Rice won't win because: Same song, different verse. Baylor will be much bigger on the lines than Rice. Oh, and people focus on RG3 because he's a freak of nature. He's a world class runner, and he's also a super-accurate passer (67% completions, 22 TD vs 8 INT) with all of his favorite targets returning. The offensive line in front of him, in addition to its size, is also very experienced. The Bears will put points up all over the Owls, far too many points for Rice to keep up.
November 12, at Northwestern (7-6 in 2010, 3-5 Big Ten)
Rice will win because: Star quarterback Dan Persa's health is a big question mark heading into the year, after he ruptured his Achilles tendon near the end of 2010. Who's to say whether he'll be around all year for the Wildcats? The game also has letdown potential for Northwestern, coming the week after a huge showdown with Nebraska.
The 13 points the Owls managed against the Wildcats a year ago wasn't indicative of how well their offense fared, putting up 377 yards of offense, but shooting itself in the foot with turnovers. And all that without McHargue.
Rice won't win because: To Rice's 377 yards, Northwestern put up 451 in last year's game, and with basically every offensive player back from last year's team, there's no reason to believe that the Owls will have any more success trying to slow down the Wildcats' offense in Evanston.
The Wildcats have won 11 straight games against Division 1-A non-AQ competition, and they are widely expected to have one of their most talented teams in years.
The Verdict: The Owls may not be favored in any of their non-conference games this year, but I think they have a talented enough team to scratch out a win in one of the games. Their best bet would be the Purdue game.