When the temperature chills and the Christmas season approaches, there will be no trophy on the line. There will be no ESPN flagship network appearance. There will be no neutral site action where fanbases from different conferences converge in an unfamiliar stadium in late December.
After WKU emerged victorious in Houston in a 42-21 result, the Rice Owls were officially eliminated from bowl eligibility with their seventh loss of the year. It’s a feeling all too familiar with the program which hasn’t qualified for the postseason since 2014.
“The way we’re recruiting, the players we bring in the building, the ones that we’re playing on the field — that’s really who my heart breaks for right now is our super seniors,” head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Our guys have poured so much into this and although they’ve helped us grow, we’re not there today.”
No current member of the roster has experienced the postseason. The Owls have a myriad of super seniors that have been a part of the program since at least 2017 — the tail-end of the David Bailiff era — but the chase for bowl eligibility prolongs.
“It’s disappointing. Everyone wants to go to a bowl game,” guard Shea Baker said. “I know our coaches do everything they can to put us in the best position to win. I know I do and I know my teammates do. Obviously, disappointing and upset, but the bottom line is we have to grow.”
Bowl eligibility was one of the program’s primary goals discussed prior to the 2021 season’s kickoff. When the 2020 COVID-affected season granted all players an extra year of eligibility, concept of participating in the postseason was an enticing pitch to bring some seniors back.
“It hurts,” defensive tackle Elijah Garcia said. “That’s why I chose to come back because I believe in this team and I believe we can get it done, and we didn’t get it done today. It’s painful but I love this team no matter what and I love my brothers in the locker room. I said I wanted to leave a legacy when I got here so that’s what I’m still striving to do these next two games and finish it out right.”
Not all has been dull for the Owls in recent history. Last year, Rice shut out a Marshall team ranked No. 15 in the AP Poll, 20-0. This year, the Owls registered another signature win by storming into UAB’s residency and knocking off the reigning C-USA champion, 30-24. However, momentum could not be manufactured after toppling UAB and Rice fell victim as home favorites to North Texas in overtime just seven days later. The next week featured another overtime defeat in Charlotte. And finally, WKU wrenched in the dagger by handing the Owls’ their third straight loss on a journey to 3-7.
Rice is locked out of the postseason picture, but the competitive effort the team has shown in the Bloomgren era is evidence of a developing program. With one more victory in 2021, Rice will have its most wins since the 2015 campaign.
“I look back to the program that we took over that was 1-11 and the first year in 2018, we went 1-7 in the conference and our average margin of defeat was 21 points,” Bloomgren said. “The last three weeks prior to today, we beat the defending conference champs and in addition to that, we went to overtime twice. I’d say that’s growth. Now we’ve got to take another step. We’ve got to win those games.”
Although the postseason contention is out of play, the Owls aren’t finished yet. With two games left to play in 2021, Rice understands that ending on a high note could be the first springboard in reshaping the program into one that consistently qualifies for bowls.
“We’re playing for the fact that we’re competitors. We’re playing for the fact that we spend 340 days a year getting prepared for 12 opportunities to play this great game, and we’re playing for each other — the fact that we care about each other,” Bloomgren said. “I’m worried about growing. We got two more tangible weeks in the 2021 football season. We’ve got growth we need to get done.”
It will be a collaborative effort between the coaching staff, departing seniors, and younger contributors to catapult Rice back into the win column to conclude 2021. UTEP and Louisiana Tech loom on the schedule as the Owls aim to capture growth.
“Whether that’s making that progress for the seniors because they want to leave it better than they found it in a tangible way, or whether that’s for the guys that are coming back, we’re gonna take another step forward so our program continues to advance,” Bloomgren said.