The Rice Owls open the season by hosting the UCLA Bruins on Thursday evening. UCLA is one of two BCS-conference opponents on Rice's schedule, down from four in 2011, giving the Owls hope of breaking their string of three straight losing seasons.
But will Rice open the season with a win? It's within the realm of possibility, but the matchups say it might not be very likely.
Rice offense vs UCLA defense
Rice has one of the least experienced offensive lines in the country, graduating four of five starters a year ago. The good news is that UCLA had an ineffective defensive line a year ago (allowed 5.2 yards per carry, only 14 sacks). The Bruins will also be in their first game switching schemes from the 4-3 to the 3-4.
The Owls have struggled running the ball (under four ypc last three years) and lose their most effective running option in Tyler Smith, but if a returning, healthy Charles Ross can be effective against a UCLA defense that is still learning, it would help immensely to open things up for the Owl passing game. There are lots of intriguing targets for the Owls, is not many proven ones. Vance McDonald returns after leading the team in receiving a year ago, but we're talking about a season in which he caught only 43 passes. Luke Willson and Taylor Cook give the Owls a couple of interesting options at the Tight End position. And Sam McGuffie, newly moved to receiver full-time, is always one to keep an eye on.
Those Rice receivers will be contending with one of the most experienced secondaries in the country, however. If they can make plays on Thursday, it will be a great indicator for the rest of the year.
UCLA offense vs Rice defense
First-year head coach Jim Mora surprised plenty of pundits by tabbing freshman Brett Hundley as the Bruins' starting quarterback over seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut. But given the quality of quarterback play that UCLA has seen in recent years, change may be a good thing. Hundley is a dual-threat quarterback, and the Bruins also have 1,000-yard rusher Jonathan Franklin back. Given the Owls' inexperienced defensive line, they may have to heavily stack the box to stop the run, and try and force Hundley to beat them through the air.
If the game goes that way, keep an eye on big TE Joseph Fauria, a legitimate NFL prospect who had a big game in the city of Houston last year. Nonetheless, the Owls have enough talent in the back seven that UCLA trying to win the game with the pass would certainly play into Rice's favor.
The Bottom Line
It's not difficult to see why the Owls are two-touchdown underdogs, even at home, to the Bruins. UCLA, quite simply, has more depth and talent than Rice does. But that doesn't mean the game is out of reach for the home team. Several things will have to go right: Rice's offensive line will have to gel quickly, the Bruins will have to be struggling to adapt to the new defensive scheme, and Rice will have to come up with some way to stop UCLA's rushing attack, to name a few. But don't count the Owls out.