UCLA Football Game Preview: Rice Owls


FIRST OPPONENT: Rice Owls, Rice Stadium, Houston, TX, 4:30 p.m. PDT, CBS Sports Network

In a little more than 72 hours from the time of this writing, UCLA will begin their 94th season of football.

It will also be the official debut of Jim Mora as not only the Bruins’ head coach, it will be his debut as a college head coach, period.

For this opening act, UCLA will be in Houston, TX, but unlike last year when Case Keenum and his Houston Cougars carved the Bruins up, UCLA will face an opponent that, in all honesty and with all due respect, they should be a clear favorite over: the Rice Owls.

Although I must emphasize that with all of the Bruins’ misfortunes these past several seasons, they cannot afford to take Rice or anyone else lightly – I’m sure that Mora will not let his team do so – this is a matchup that, at least on paper, favors the Bruins.

These Owls, for lack of a better way to put it, had a sub-par season in 2011 that was worse than UCLA’s; led by sixth year coach David Balliff, Rice, considered the best academic institution in Texas and well known as a school that’s on par with Stanford and the Ivy League in that area, went 4-8 and finished in 4th place in Conference USA’s West Division.

In five years at the helm, Balliff is 17-30 with the Owls as he, like pretty much all football coaches at top academic schools save for perhaps Stanford, has been handicapped from recruiting the athletes he needs due to Rice’s high admissions standards, which has shown in the statistics of his team.

Taylor McHargue will begin his third year at quarterback for the Owls, but his numbers are not exactly worthy of Heisman Trophy consideration; just over 1,000 yards passing in 2011, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions on 57.5% passing.

Sam McGuffie was Rice’s leading rusher and receiver in 2010, which arguably renders him as the Owls’ biggest threat on offense, but the catch is that the Michigan transfer missed all of last season due to injury. Although McGuffie is only 5′ 10″, he will be seen as the go-to guy at wide receiver, which will be an advantage for Bruin defensive backs like Andrew Abbott and Sheldon Price because of the height advantage they will have.

Rice’s defense is nothing to write home about either, which will loom well for quarterback Brett Hundley, whose UCLA career will officially start this Thursday against the Owls alongside veterans like Johnathan Franklin and Joseph Fauria; the Owl defense allowed a whopping 462 yards per game overall and 33.3 points per contest (which reminds one of UCLA’s defense in 2011, particularly against USC and Oregon, I know). Cornerback Bryce Callahan and linebacker Cameron Nwusu are the returning bright spots, with Callahan leading Conference USA with six interceptions last year and Nwusu leading the Owls with 108 tackles.

Even though UCLA has the better personnel on paper, Rice will be very motivated for this opening game as the Bruins are the biggest non-conference name on their schedule. Plus they are celebrating their 100th anniversary of football and, as Conference USA is merging with the Mountain West Conference in 2013 to form a new super conference, they want to end their life in C-USA n a good note.

The biggest motivational factor for these Owls is an important one: They have never beaten UCLA, going 0-4 against them overall, including a 26-16 loss to the Bruins at the Rose Bowl in 2006.

If that’s not an incentive for Rice, nothing is.

And most of all, that should serve notice to UCLA that they really cannot take these Owls from Rice lightly, that they need to start season number 94, and Mora’s first season in Westwood, not only on a winning note, but by winning this game by a comfortable margin if not by a blowout, because (at least for me) that will be an indicator as to how the rest of the year may go.