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Baylor at Rice preview

High-octane Baylor is the first ranked opponent to visit Rice Stadium in 19 years. 

NCAA Football: Rice at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Kickoff: 7 p.m. CST, Friday, Sept. 16

Location: Rice Stadium, Houston, Texas

TV: ESPN

Streaming: Watch ESPN

Betting Line: Baylor is a 31-point favorite

Series Record: Baylor leads 48-30-2

Game Outlook

Rice coach David Bailiff was actually talking about the Owls’ offense this season rather than the decision to schedule Baylor.

The No. 19 Bears (2-0) are the first ranked opponent to venture onto the Rice campus since No. 21 BYU lost to Rice on Oct. 11, 1997. And the timing of it is less than ideal. Rice (0-2) is coming off two lopsided losses at Western Kentucky and Army.

“They’re big and they’re physical,” Bailiff said of Baylor. “Their receivers are extremely fast. Their running backs are back. They’re performing at a high level offensively and defensively.”

The Bears have won seven straight in the series of former SWC foes, including a 70-17 romp in Waco last season.

Given the results so far in 2016, the likelihood of a Rice win Friday is not high. But win or lose, progress can be made and confidence can be gained.

“We just need to worry about us,” Bailiff said. “We have to keep improving Rice every snap we take. Keep these young men believing, and we’ll get this thing going the way we need to.”

To do so Rice has to cut down on mistakes. Despite having a bevy of experienced running backs, Rice has netted less than 200 yards on the ground. Quarterback Tyler Stehling remains the team’s leading rusher with 93 yards.

Turnovers and penalties have hurt as well, including Stehling’s three interceptions. Although he has a decent completion rate of 57 percent, it would be higher if receivers weren’t dropping balls or running imprecise routes.

“I think it’s that we have young men trying so hard that we’re making too many mistakes,” Bailiff said. “We have got to find a way where they get their confidence back. It’s not effort. But, we have receivers who are running routes that are off their landmarks. We have running backs that are supposed to be out in a route that are staying in to protect.”

Baylor presents a number of problems for the Rice defense. The Bears average 47.5 points and 517 yards a game. Baylor has led the NCAA in total and scoring offense for the past 3 years.

QB Seth Russell is 10-0 in his career as a starter. In those starts, he has thrown 40 TD passes and 8 interceptions. His myriad of weapons include wide receiver KD Cannon who ranks third all-time on Baylor’s career yards-per-game list and is making progress coming back after a knee injury.

“It looks like he’s starting to run his routes better, and he’s starting to catch the ball,” Baylor coach Jim Grobe said. “He looks comfortable catching the football now. …I’m not sure he’s 100 percent yet, I have a feeling you’re going to see him get a little better each week.”

To help defend Cannon and Baylor’s other receivers, Rice will have the services of J.T. Blasingame. The senior cornerback from Atlanta missed the Army game with a muscle injury. Linebacker Tabari McGaskey also will return to the Owls lineup.

Prediction

While the Baylor series was scheduled when Rice was more competitive, the Owls are embracing a chance to play a ranked team on national TV. It’s the home opener and it should be the largest crowd of the season.

Baylor started slow last week against SMU, scoring just three points on its first six offensive possessions. If the Bears start slow again, Rice may be able to take advantage if the running game comes alive. Ultimately though, the Bears have a decided advantage in talent and experience. Rice sees some improvement in a losing cause. Final: Baylor 49, Rice 17.