Kickoff: 9 p.m. CST, Saturday, Aug. 26
Location: Allianz Stadium, Sydney, Australia
Streaming: Watch ESPN
Betting Line: Stanford is a 30.5-point favorite
Series Record: Rice 3-2
When a team travels 17,740 miles for a “home” game, there better be a good reason for it.
There are several for the Rice Owls as they participate in the second Sydney Cup. At the top of the list is once-in-a-lifetime chance for student-athletes to travel halfway around the globe and soak in a different culture or mingle with different animals as evidenced by the koala at Tuesday’s introductory news conference.
While in Sydney, the Owls have toured the University of Sydney and listened to a panel discussion about American and Australian college sports, met with Australian media, visited a rugby training facility, demonstrated football skills at a grammar school and hit the beach. More is on the agenda for Friday.
“We’ve got some fun mixed in for these guys, hopefully we’ll get to the zoo,” Rice coach David Bailiff said Tuesday. “But we’ve got to practice every morning, we’re here to play football.”
Ah yes, the business part of the trip. Rice is a heavy underdog to a No. 14 Stanford squad that some are predicting to win the Pac 12 North and compete for a playoff spot.
While Rice breaks in a new quarterback in redshirt freshman Sam Glaesmann, Stanford welcomes back Keller Christ who suffered a torn ACL in the Sun Bowl and somewhat amazingly is healthy enough to play less than eight months later. He’s got no shortage of weapons, starting with wideouts JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin.
Rice will need to show improvement in the secondary right away. The Owls gave up 288 pass yards a game last season, which ranked 123rd in the country.
The focal point of Stanford’s offense the last few seasons, Christian McCaffrey, has a Carolina Panthers uniform now. But that doesn’t mean Stanford won’t have success running the ball. Rice knows firsthand what Bryce Love can do. Love ran for 779 yards last season, including 111 against the Owls in the regular season finale in 2016.
“Every time Bryce has touched the ball for [the] last two years there is a collective pause that happens on our sideline and the other sideline and there is a gasp that you can actually hear that anticipation because he is so explosive,” Stanford coach David Shaw said at the team’s media day.
Rice does return eight defensive starters in addition to cornerback Justin Bickham, who earned C-USA All-Freshman honors in 2015 before missing last season due to injury. The game makes the debut of Brian Stewart’s 3-4 defense, which could make it a little more difficult for Stanford to game plan.
“We have the ability to have an odd front, an even front and make everything fit,” Bailiff said at C-USA media day. “We’ll have some nickel looks. We’ll have it all. It’s not important how much I know, or how much Coach Stewart knows. It’s important what these players know and that they have the ability to play fast.”
Saturday (or Sunday in Australia) is the first football game Rice has played outside the United States in its more than 100-year history. The Owls have brought more than 200 people Down Under, including administrators, alumni, sponsors, fans and cheerleaders. Regardless of the result on the field, the trip will likely be something everyone associated with the program will remember for a long time.
Rice’s last win over a team ranked in the AP poll was in 1997 when the Owls defeated No. 21 BYU, 27-14. While I don’t think it will take another 20 years for Rice to beat a ranked team, it won’t be Saturday.
Stanford scored at least 25 points in each of its final six games of 2016 and outscored opponents, 223-123 during that stretch, and many of those same offensive weapons are back. The Cardinals have too much size and talent on both sides of the ball for Rice to spring the upset.
The Owls will show some improvement over last year’s finale, but it doesn’t translate on the scoreboard. Stanford wins 45-16.