Not many programs in the country are more bowl-starved than the Rice Owls. Rice has not competed in the postseason since winning the 2014 Hawaii Bowl over Fresno State, entering 2022 with the sixth-longest bowl drought in the FBS and the longest in C-USA.
By earning a crunch-time win over UTEP the first week of November, Rice improved to 5-4 to clinch its best season in head coach Mike Bloomgren’s five years at the helm. But hitting the six-win threshold would be the Owls’ greatest challenge, as Rice closed its 2022 campaign against the top three teams in the C-USA standings — WKU, UTSA, and North Texas.
The Owls fell in lopsided fashion to WKU and UTSA by an aggregate score of 86-17, but Saturday afternoon in Denton, they gave North Texas all it could handle. However, the Mean Green emerged victorious in 21-17 fashion on a go-ahead touchdown pass from Austin Aune to Ikaika Ragsdale with 10:35 remaining. Rice failed to invade North Texas territory on its final two series of the game, officially falling to 5-7 and missing bowl eligibility. Or did they?
There are 82 vacancies needed to fill for bowl eligibility, and after Friday’s slate, 75 were filled. Four 5-6 teams qualified for bowl eligibility Saturday, as UAB, Southern Miss, Louisiana, and Georgia Southern all notched win number six, moving the number of eligible teams to 79.
Buffalo is 5-6 and plays Akron on Friday afternoon in a matchup originally postponed due to heavy snowstorms in the Buffalo area. If the Bulls utilize homefield advantage and defeat the Zips in the appetizer to conference championship weekend, there will be 80 bowl eligible teams for 82 spots.
New Mexico State is 5-6 after thrashing Liberty on Saturday, and the Aggies can potentially move to 6-6 if its postponed game against San Jose State is rescheduled. However, no scheduling news regarding that matchup has been announced as of Sunday.
Appalachian State is 6-6, but two of the Mountaineers’ victories were over FCS opponents, and only one is counted for bowl eligibility purposes. Thus, Appalachian State is expected to be treated like a 5-7 team in the bowl pecking order. There is one additional team which can attain six wins, and that is Army. Army is 5-6 with a looming game against Navy the week after bowls are announced. Because of Army’s standing as an independent and contractual obligations, they will go to the Independence Bowl if they reach six wins. They will likely need a waiver from the NCAA however, since the Black Knights also have two wins over FCS teams.
The remaining vacancies are filled by Academic Progress Rate (APR), a metric which factors in student-athlete eligibility and student-athlete retention, with 1,000 as the highest possible rating. Rice’s academic success could be the deciding factor in ending a long bowl drought. Among 5-7 teams, the Owls own the highest APR at 994 and will be first in line when it comes to filling the remaining bowl spots. Head coach Mike Bloomgren commented on the possibility of qualifying for bowl eligibility at 5-7 due to a high APR prior to falling to North Texas.
“It does (matter) because they’re Rice students and because they’re the top APR at a school like Rice where no class is easy, so yeah, that does,” Bloomgren said. “Earning it at a place like Rice at 5-7, yeah, I guess that’s still earning it. It’s a step forward for this team, but I believe there’s more in this team than being a 5-7 team that goes to a bowl. If we’re 6-6 and have a chance to go have a winning season and win a bowl game, that’s something that’s really substantial.”
UNLV ranks second in APR in the 5-7 club at 984 and is expected to be the 82nd team if Buffalo beats Akron. In the event the Bulls fall to the Zips, Michigan State or Auburn will be next in the pecking order with matching APRs of 983.
The only bowl matchup currently set in stone is the Bahamas Bowl between UAB and Miami (OH) on Dec. 16. All other matchups are expected to be finalized on Sunday, Dec. 4.