Date: Saturday November 25, 2017
Kickoff Time: Noon CST
Location: Rice Stadium, Houston TX
Streaming: Watch ESPN
Line: North Texas -13, O/U 63.5
Series Record: Rice leads the all-time series, 4-3. The series is split 2-2 as conference rivals.
Last Meeting: UNT won last season in Houston, 42-35.
It all happened so quickly, but somehow we’ve arrived at the last regular season game for Rice and North Texas. Neither are exactly where they were predicted to be way back in the preseason, but in both cases, fan bases can expect more to be excited about in 2018. But first, we’ve got four quarters to go.
North Texas Outlook
Outlook is GREAT. While hardly a perfect team— with a handful of wins coming from last-second heroics— this scrappy Mean Green team has won where it counts, and is currently sitting pretty atop C-USA West.
Lucky for UNT, this season’s conference schedule was put together when the Green were still an afterthought, helping them avoid a high-profile season finale.
Why is this lucky? Because as previously reported, senior Jeffrey Wilson is not only out for this week, but may have played his last college game:
DRC (ICYMI) -- UNT running back Jeffery Wilson out through the C-USA title game with foot injury, may have played his last game for the @MeanGreenFB: https://t.co/dxnuqf4W5X pic.twitter.com/NdM3uTS6ZU— Brett Vito (@brettvito) November 21, 2017
Not only is Wilson out at least through the C-USA title game, and possibly the bowl game (depending on when it will be, according to Littrell), top WR Jalen Guyton was under concussion protocol during the Army game last week and remains questionable for Saturday.
Since Wilson will be graduating anyway, this game will be an excellent showcase for the future stars of the Mean Green. Mason Fine will still put up an obscene amount of yards, currently rocking 3,198 passing yards after last weeks slugfest. Meanwhile, RB Nic Smith will have a chance to shine, having so far racked up 92 carries (about half what Wilson has), and 437 yards rushing (about a third of what Wilson has). Also expect some big plays for RB Evan Johnson, (27 carries, 171 yards this year), as Johnson is the only other RB on the roster with significant yardage— though do look out for Andrew Tucker, who has two TD’s on only 69 yards.
In the air, Fine will have his usual choice of targets. Whether Guyton plays or not, Michael Lawrence will be downfield, who has two more receptions than Guyton this season (49), but fewer yards (671 to Guyton’s 758). Two other receivers have over 400 yards this season— Rico Bussey, Jr. and Turney Smiley— and they have 3 TD’s apiece. The upshot here is UNT’s passing game is on point, and should make a meal out of the Owls.
To step things up next season, UNT needs to add more tools to the running game, and especially shore up that defense, which has ranged from inconsistent to non-existent. Against this collapsing Rice team, though, they’ll be just fine, which will be a new and welcome feeling for the Mean Green fanbase.
Outlook not so good. Since winning a conference title in 2013, Rice has slowly regressed, in fact so slowly that initially it just looked like the off-year that all teams occasionally deal with. After finishing 10-4 in their title year, the ensuing seasons have seen David Bailiff’s team go 8-5, 5-7, and then 3-9 last year. Headed into this game, against the division champs, Rice is 1-10, their only win against currently winless UTEP.
Where UTEP’s coach did the honorable thing and stepped down, this could well be Bailiff’s last game on the sideline in Houston. Since taking over a few weeks back, QB Miklo Smalls has done better than his predecessor, Jackson Tyner, but the team still lost handily to UAB and USM, before a surprisingly close game against ODU a week ago (final score: 24-21).
At this point in the season, Rice has little to play for except bragging rights. This game is unlikely to affect UNT’s bowl selection, and unlikely to save Bailiff’s job. Rice has already locked up “not last” in the standings, barring the unlikely scenario of UTEP beating UAB in the final week.
Sadly, this looks more like the Rice team of old, the same university that missed a bowl game every year from 1961 to 2004. After a taste of success since then, Rice fans can only hope they can attract a coach who can actually deliver on the promise Bailiff has offered fleetingly, but not consistently.
On Saturday, the Owls will not be without their highlights. RB’s Nahshon Ellerbe and Austin Walter have been solid, with 405 and 385 rushing yards respectively. Walter in particular is averaging 6.1 yards a carry, and the two have combined for ten touchdowns this season.
In the air, WR Aaron Cephus had 572 yards on 23 catches, averaging 24.9 yards a catch, of which he’ll need every last one against this high-flying North Texas team. Cephus also accounts for five TD’s this season, with only one other TD in the air for Rice.
These Owls should make this game something less than a snoozefest, as this squad clearly has talent, but a coaching staff that just can’t seem to find success. There’s no indication that anything will turn around this week, but hey, it’s always nice to watch a game at Rice Stadium
Much like the football teams themselves, no sports writer should be overconfident. Overconfidence has cost the Mean Green in their losses, and almost cost them a couple of conference games. If the Green don’t look past this game, and focus on the task at hand, they can handle this weekend easily. But if they fail to take Rice seriously, these Owls have the tools to put up some points.
Final Score: North Texas 42, Rice 13