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2014 Opponent Rating: Rice

Why do we rank Rice No. 11 among Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in 2014?

Rice’s Jordan Taylor caught a team-high 55 passes for 848 yards and eight scores in 2013.

Actually this is a coin flip with Purdue for the team Notre Dame is most likely to defeat on its 2014 schedule. We put Rice barely ahead of the Boilermakers for two reasons.

One, the Owls did finish 10-4 last season, whereas Purdue was 1-11 and lost its last 10. Second, while records can sometimes be misleading based on level of competition, Rice has been able to establish some better stability under seventh-year head coach David Bailiff — a Paul W. Bryant Coach of the Year finalist in 2013. Oh, and Rice did beat Purdue in their last meeting back in 2011.

Last year, Rice had a rough start to the season with a 52-31 loss to Texas A&M and an even worse finish with a 44-7 whipping from Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl. In between, though, it was one of the greatest football seasons in school history, highlighted by capturing the Conference USA title. It was Rice’s first league title since 1957, when the Owls captured the Southwest Conference crown.

The Owls have been to back-to-back bowl games in 2012-13 (victorious in 2012), so they have at least been forming more of a winning culture in recent years.

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Bailiff and his staff will face a major rebuild in 2014 minus nearly two-dozen seniors from last season, 17 of them whom were in their fifth year. This includes replacing productive dual-threat QB Taylor McHargue and the school’s second all-time leading rusher Charles Ross, who helped Rice finish 17th nationally in rushing offense (227.4 yards per game).

The strength of the offense is returning its top three wideouts, headlined by Jordan Taylor (55 catches, 15.4 yards per catch and eight touchdowns last year) plus Dennis Parks (29 catches that averaged 17.5 yards and three scores) and three offensive linemen. Defensively, six starters are back, three of them in the secondary. This includes Bryce Callahan, who broke up 10 passes and was credited with 13 passes defended.

Notable Fact
Rice’s football program was honored Jan. 13 with Tulane, Stanford and Georgia as the winners of the 2013 AFCA Academic Achievement Award, which celebrated schools with a 100 percent graduation rate from its class that enrolled in 2006.

The 2013 season was an excellent one for top academic schools such as Stanford, Duke and Rice, all of whom won league or division titles, while Vanderbilt also continued to be a more viable contender in the SEC. Notre Dame has won 21 games the past two season and advanced to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.

Rice is the second-smallest school in the 123-team Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) with 3,054 students, behind only Tulsa’s 2,456. That didn’t prevent the Golden Hurricanes from stunning the Fighting Irish in Notre Dame Stadium back in 2010.

Like Temple in 2013, South Florida in 2011, Nevada in 2009 and San Diego State in 2008, this is the best Notre Dame could do for scheduling the proverbial “breather” in the season opener, and at home, to help tune up for the season. Of course, South Florida pulled the upset in 2011, San Diego State nearly did in 2008, and Temple — also nicknamed the Owls — was outscored only 14-6 in the final 55 minutes.

Nevertheless, with all the veteran stars lost from last year’s Rice team, this is a game where the Irish will likely be favored by about three touchdowns. The expectation with quarterback Everett Golson back at the helm might even be to produce a 50-10 victory in the opener, like against Navy in 2012.

Tomorrow: The 10th-toughest opponent, on paper.

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