- Time and date: Saturday, November 18 at 2:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Jerry Richardson Stadium — Charlotte, NC
- Spread: Rice (-2.5)
- Over/under: 46.5
- All-time series: Series tied, 2-2
- Last meeting: Charlotte 56, Rice 23 — October 29, 2022
- Current streak: Charlotte, 2 (2021-22)
Setting the scene
Rice and Charlotte met four times as long-distance members of the CUSA, and now the series comes with AAC designation for the first time ever. It hasn’t been the most seamless transition for the Owls (4-6, 2-4 AAC) or 49ers (3-7, 2-4 AAC) which both wield losing records — overall and in conference play.
But one of these teams is still hanging onto bowl hopes. Rice qualified for bowl season short of six wins last year due to having the highest Academic Progress Rate (APR) among 5-7 teams. The Owls could punch a ticket to bowl season using the same method this year, but they’re striving for their first 6-win season since 2014.
Charlotte was officially eliminated from bowl eligibility last week, but even in a losing effort, it was the 49ers’ most impressive performance of the season. Charlotte was outlasted 44-38 to a quality Memphis team in overtime, and the team is making major strides with each passing week.
Rice Owls outlook
There was a time when Rice was 4-3. Then the Owls faced a murder’s row of a three-week slate in AAC play. Three teams still boast unbeaten AAC records — Tulane, SMU, and UTSA — and Rice battled those three opponents in back-to-back-to-back contests. Rice came excruciatingly close to Tulane and SMU, falling to those juggernauts by a combined seven points, but the wheels fell off last Saturday at the Alamodome in a 34-14 loss to UTSA — the Owls’ largest margin of defeat in conference play this year.
One reason the UTSA game was more lopsided than the others was the lack of starting quarterback JT Daniels in the lineup. The journeyman transfer suffered a concussion in the second quarter of the SMU game and did not clear protocol prior to last Saturday. Head coach Mike Bloomgren did not provide an update on Daniels’ status for this week’s contest, but Daniels started — and won — a game against East Carolina this year without any practice reps coming off an injury, so if cleared, Daniels will be in the lineup.
Rice’s offense takes on a different form with Daniels under center, and he has four 340+ yard showings this year, firing for multiple touchdowns in every start except the opener. Without Daniels, Rice will turn to one of two quarterbacks. AJ Padgett earned the nod for the UTSA game and fired for 182 yards and two touchdowns on a 60.7 completion rate in his third career start as an Owl. But Rice also features true freshman Chase Jenkins, a mobile presence who completed 9-of-15 passes for 75 yards in the second half of the SMU game.
With or without Daniels, expect the Owls offense to lean on the talents of running back Dean Connors. The speedster doubles as a rushing and receiving threat, averaging 6.1 yards per carry as an explosive runner and ranking second on the team with 38 receptions. First in the receptions department is star receiver Luke McCaffrey, who has a strong case for the All-AAC team this year. Padgett connected six times with McCaffrey for 68 yards last week and that was only his sixth-most productive outing of 2023.
Not only did Rice play shorthanded at quarterback in San Antonio, but they also were lacking several key cogs on defense. One was third-leading tackler Chris Conti from the inside linebacker position and another was free safety Gabe Taylor, who leads the team in interceptions. The status of those two hasn’t been determined for Saturday, but the Owls also recently welcomed outside linebacker Josh Pearcy and strong safety Jonathan Jean back from injury. Pearcy’s presence will be significant in bolstering a pass rush which only produces 1.7 sacks per game while Jean aims to improve the 92nd ranked pass defense and limit Charlotte’s newfound thriving run game.
Charlotte 49ers outlook
It took 10 games for Charlotte to be axed from bowl eligibility, which is impressive considering the 49ers started 1-5, added 70 new players, and are operating under a first-time head coach in Biff Poggi.
Poggi’s team is making incremental strides each week and the progress was especially evident last Saturday against Memphis. Charlotte held the upper-hand for the majority of the ballgame and clung onto a 38-28 advantage with under six minutes to go, but Memphis executed perfectly down the stretch to emerge with a 44-38 overtime escape.
Knocking off the Tigers — whose only losses are ranked Missouri and ranked Tulane — would have been a signature win for Poggi. But the cutoff-sleeve wearing coach earned a remarkable overtime win one week prior, knocking off Tulsa on the road despite trailing 17-0 in the early going. Charlotte is 2-2 in its last four games and nearly posted a 3-1 record over that stretch, and the offense gaining rhythm is one major reason for this late-season acceleration.
Quarterback Trexler Ivey is two weeks removed from posting the best passing performance from a Charlotte passer this year, attaining 277 yards and one touchdown in the comeback overtime win in Tulsa. Ivey didn’t exactly replicate that showing last week, tossing four interceptions against Memphis, but the sophomore has recently opened up the aerial game for a 49ers team which is 19th-to-last in the category nationally.
Another emerging talent on the offense is running back Hahsaun Wilson — another player who returned from the 2022 roster on a team highly comprised of newcomers. Wilson only had one career touch before the Memphis game, but he immediately rose to stardom against the Tigers, rushing for 198 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries — amounting to 8.3 yards per carry. Wilson is expected to be the No. 1 guy going forward, and Charlotte is going to pound the rock with him early and often in hopes that masterclass carries over to this Saturday.
Charlotte’s defense counters Rice with a former 5-star recruit in the trenches. Eyabi Okie originally committed to Alabama and eventually made his way to Michigan when Poggi was on staff. In his first year reunited with Poggi at Charlotte, Okie has 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks, both first on the team. Outside linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green is another Michigan transfer on this defense causing problems for opponents. He recorded 11 tackles for the second consecutive game against Memphis and he is second on the roster in both tackles (71) and tackles for loss (9.0) tackles for loss on the year.
The result of this one is heavily contingent on injury statuses, especially on the Rice side. If JT Daniels is cleared to play Saturday, that changes the entire dynamic of the Owls’ offense and allows Rice to be one of the most dominant teams in the AAC through the air. Rice greatly missed the graduate senior’s presence last week at UTSA, and a return to the lineup would make the Owls the prohibitive favorites.
Rice is missing some defensive pieces, which isn’t ideal for a Charlotte offense that has been on the rise the last two weeks. The 49ers posted 38 points in regulation on Memphis in spite of four interceptions, although they claimed four takeaways for themselves. Hahsaun Wilson might be a problem for the Rice defense which is 89th in defending the run, and the 49ers are going to keep pace with Rice on the scoreboard in this one by leaning on the rising talent.
But in the end, the Owls survive a close one on the road.
Prediction: Rice 28, Charlotte 27