The Fresno State Bulldogs have had an up-and-down 2014, but winning the Mountain West Conference's West division was good enough to secure their second Hawaii Bowl bid in three years. Their opponent is a familiar one, though it's been a decade since the Red Wave met the Rice Owls on the gridiron.
To get Bulldogs fans up to speed ahead of the Christmas Eve game, we at Mountain West Connection reached out to Underdog Dynasty for some Rice insights. Adam Rosenfield manages Conference USA content for our Group of Five-centric blog.
MWC Connection: This trip to the Hawaii Bowl will represent Rice's third straight trip to a bowl game, which has never happened before in the program's history. What does this effort say about head coach David Bailiff? Where does he stand in the hierarchy of Conference USA coaches?
Rosenfield: This confirms just how great of a coach Bailiff is and how fortunate Rice is to have him. Bailiff has done a great job remaking the program, recruiting players that are both athletes and qualify academically at Rice (the acceptance rate rivals some Ivy League schools). To be honest with you, it's Bailiff and Doc Holliday, and then everyone else in terms of Conference USA -- though Skip Holtz made some great strides this year in Ruston -- because they are the only two coaches that have had consistent winners these past few years.
MWC Connection: Though the Owls were unable to defend their conference title after last year's surprising 10-win campaign, how do the 7-5 record and second-place finish in the West division stack up with preseason expectations?
Rosenfield: I'd like to say they were about on par. The Owls were expected to contend up until the very end and, if not for a late season loss against Louisiana Tech, would be where most people thought they would end up: Either first or second in the C-USA West. The only difference is the team projected to be ahead of them was either North Texas or UTSA, rather than the Bulldogs.
MWC Connection: Marshall linebacker Neville Hewitt took home the C-USA Defensive Player of the Year honors, but I imagine the Owls' defensive lineman Brian Nordstrom had a strong case to make for himself. What should Fresno State fans expect to see when he takes the field in Honolulu?
Rosenfield: Rice has a strong defensive unit, and don't forget freshman Graysen Schantz; he was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team. The Owls have always been known as a disciplined defensive team and it showed, since a few other members of the Rice defense received all-conference honors, as well. While Rice can get into a high scoring affair, this is a team that will blitz and can prevent the deep pass well. All-conference 2nd teamer Bryce Callahan mans one of the corner spots.
MWC Connection: Quarterback Driphus Jackson had the unenviable task of replacing Taylor McHargue under center. How has he progressed in his first season as the starter? Is he as much of a running threat as some of the box scores suggest?
Rosenfield: I think 21 TD's to only 8 interceptions showed Driphus made some serious progress. He was fortunate to have two experienced receivers in Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull, and most of his offensive line consisted of upperclassmen, as well. Driphus is a running threat, although much of his damage was done against teams with leaky defenses (see Texas A&M). I think he is a running threat and, next year, as Rice replaces much of its line and receiving corps, we will really see how much Jackson has actually progressed.
MWC Connection: The Owls didn't often come away empty-handed in trips to the red zone this year, finishing 10th in the FBS in scoring conversions, and 21 of their 30 touchdowns came on the ground. Does this suggest that Jawon Davis and Darik Dillard might play a significant role in the Owls' bowl fortunes, or does it suggest something else?
Rosenfield: It suggests nothing other than Dillard and Davis play a significant role. They combined for 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns, and even added 200 yards receiving! What more could you ask of two guys like that?
MWC Connection: Is there any truth to the box scores' assertion that the Owls struggled against pass-first offenses (Texas A&M, Old Dominion, Marshall)? Either way, how will the secondary contend with the very real possibility that the Bulldogs will want to get star receiver Josh Harper involved early and often?
Rosenfield: You'll probably see Rice play it safe. I'm going to give them a slight pass on both the A&M and Old Dominion games because the Owls were beaten up by Notre Dame and the Aggies. They came into the ODU matchup tired, and the Monarchs were playing their first-ever C-USA game at home. I think you'll see a lot of zone at first, with some blitzes sprinkled throughout to test Brian Burrell.
MWC Connection: What's your prediction for the game?
Rosenfield: I think this will be a high scoring affair and quite entertaining, though I think Rice's firepower will be too much for Fresno State. The Bulldogs aren't as good as their 6-7 record actually suggests, so I'm going with Rice, 55-35.