While much of the country focused on Coastal Carolina-BYU and its epic ending, Rice proved to be a worthy undercard for those that watched them upset #21/#15 (AP) Marshall on ESPN+. The Owls intercepted five Grant Wells passes and held the Thundering Herd offense to 245 yards of offense. The win was their first win over an AP ranked team since their 27-14 victory over #21 BYU. So this all begs the question asked in the title.
It’s best to limit the scope of this piece to Rice’s history after their time in the Southwest Conference, starting in 1996. Before their rigid academic standards made it hard to compete with the rest of the conference, Rice had several relevant games and wins.
From 1937-1960, the Owls appeared in four Cotton Bowls, an Orange Bowl, and a Sugar Bowl, notching a 4-2 record in those games. Even this weekend’s upset seems to pale in comparison to Rice’s last win against Texas, a rare Sunday night nationally-televised game, where the Owls beat the #12 Longhorns for the first time since 1965.
So, let’s start with that BYU win. While Rice got their first ranked win since that Texas game, and only their third since 1962, the game had little national relevance. Sure, BYU was fresh off their 14-1 year and Cotton Bowl victory, but their 1997 team was significantly worse, finishing at 6-5. Rice had a solid year at 7-4, but was in the middle of the pack in a 16-team WAC. This game is definitely ahead of that upset.
Better than Power Five and Bowl Wins?
This weekend’s upset ranks above any of the Owls’ Power Five wins in that span. Rice has five wins over Power Five teams since 1996, but all wins came against mediocre teams, with their 2011 win over Purdue being their best of the bunch, as the Boilermakers “excelled” to a 7-6 record and win in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. The 2011 team is Rice’s only win over a Power Five bowl team since leaving the SWC in 1995.
The same can be said for Rice’s Bowl victories, as few seemed nationally relevant at the time. Rice beat a talented 9-3 Western Michigan squad in the 2008 Texas Bowl, but the game had little national impact, as it was on the schedule with two other bowls, including an all-ranked affair in the Holiday Bowl. On top of that, a smaller than ideal audience saw the game as the NFL Network broadcasted it.
RIce’s two other bowl wins came against mediocre squads, a 6-6 Air Force team with losses to 2-10 Army and 2-11 UNLV in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl, and 6-7 Fresno State in the 2014 Hawaii Bowl, who somehow won their division that year. While the bowl victories and wins over Power Five teams were “feel good” wins, they all lacked a program defining aspect to them.
Actual Program Defining Wins
All of this brings us to two wins that this game actually competes with this game in magnitude. First, we look at Rice’s win over SMU in 2006. A year removed from a 1-10 season, and under first-year coach Todd Graham, Rice opened the year with a 1-5 record and the same outlook as previous years.
Yet, they found a way to win five in a row, including overtime wins against defending conference champs, Tulsa in overtime and a last-second win over UAB. Coming into their final game at 6-5, a win would solidify their bowl eligibility.
Playing with their backup QB, (this will become a theme), Joel Armstrong, a holdover from Ken Hatfield’s triple option offense, the Owls won a back-and-forth game 31-27. Armstrong threw the game-winning touchdown, a 25-yard toss to the legendary Jarett Dillard with four minutes to go, as the Owls received a bid to the New Orleans Bowl. The bowl was their first bowl appearance since the 1961 Bluebonnet Bowl.
This win proved that Rice was no longer the laughingstock it had been in not only the SWC, but also the WAC and C-USA. It was a huge step on the path toward relevance. Rice would complete that journey to relevance seven years later, in the last game in our study, the 2013 Conference USA title game against Marshall.
In that game, the Owls road the coattails of Luke Turner, who became likely the first and only Wildcat QB to win a conference title game MVP with his 43 passing yards, 2 passing TDs and 49 rushing yards. The championship was Rice’s first since their share of the 1994 SWC title, which ended in a five-way tie (not a joke), and their first outright title since their 1957 SWC title.
So What Does This All Mean?
Rice’s win ranks just below their bowl-clinching win over SMU and their conference championship win over Marshall in 2013. Those wins were truly milestones for the program and made significant gains in changing the perception of the program. This year’s win may have done the same, yet it’s too soon to tell. After all, it was Rice’s fourth game of the year. If Mike Bloomgren’s team makes a run for the West Division title, maybe it will surpass the 2006 game.
Still, so much accounts for this game’s footing in Rice’s post-SWC program history. Not only did the Owls come in as 23-point underdogs, but they faced the #21 ranked team in the CFP rankings with a redshirt QB making only his second start, in Jovoni Johnson.
Rice not only ended their losing streak to ranked teams, but also did much to shape the college football landscape in knocking Marshall out of the New Year’s Six race. For all of these reasons, we should hold this win in high regard in Rice’s program history.