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What To Make Of The 2014 Rice Owls

Rice, Conference USA's smartest team (going by student acceptance rankings) sits at 1-3 with a lone win coming against Southern Miss last week. So, what do we make of this 2014 Owls football team?

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

It was supposed to be a dream year (and it still can be). The Rice Owls came off of a dream season, finishing 10-4 and with their first outright conference championship since 1957. They returned All-Conference USA defense tackle Christian Covington and a stable of running backs in addition to their new, athletic quarterback Driphus Jackson.

The D was mean, and this publication had Rice at number 62 in the preseason- high for a school more known for NASA than nose tackles. 2013 was supposed to be a building year for years to come. Everyone thought Rice could actually make some noise in the Notre Dame game this year, as a few Fighting Irish players were suspended during the week leading up to the game. There was even some slight small talk about being competitive against Texas A&M as well.

So what's happened?

To be fair, the first two teams on Rice's schedule are undefeated and mentioned in every publication (well, maybe not Notre Dame) as contenders for the first-ever College Football Playoff. I'll even give Rice a slight pass on Old Dominion- though it is the Monarchs' first year in FBS, they have quite the potent offense led by four-year starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Not only that, ODU might be better than projected- they took North Carolina State to the wire (who captured the nation's attention by leading AP No.1 Florida State until the fourth quarter last week).

The win against a partially improved Southern Miss team was a confidence booster for the Owls - Jackson passed for 178 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense scored 10 points off of three turnovers. His performance was a jolt to the Rice passing attack - the team ranks 85th nationally in total passing offense, but 44th in total rushing offense, thanks to the contributions of Dawon Davis and Darik Dillard.

While I'm not big on "THIS IS A HUGE STRETCH" proclamations, these next two games are big for Rice in terms of not only confidence, but bowl eligibility as well. Rice needs to win against Hawaii and Army, as the final six games on Rice's schedule include three teams that were bowl-eligible in 2013, as well as much-improved teams in UTEP and Louisiana Tech who could also be playing for bowl eligibility by the time they face the Owls.

The Rainbow Warriors have lost a few close games against Oregon State and Colorado,  boast a rushing defense that is in the top third in the NCAA, and on the whole, don't surrender a whole lot of points. The Black Knights, after having been upset by Yale, could be in for a long season. Both of these are winnable games for the Owls, who must be 3-3 heading in to the pre-Halloween tilt with North Texas. Last season, UNT's black uniforms spooked Rice (at least in my book) and almost knocked the Owls out of the Conference USA title race, if not for a late UNT loss against UTSA.

David Baliff said 2013 wasn't a "flash in the pan". After a bumpy start to 2014, does his prediction still ring true?