- Time and date: Saturday, September 23 at 3:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Raymond James Stadium — Tampa, FL
- Spread: Rice (-2.5)
- Over/under: 58
- All-time series: No previous meetings
Setting the scene
While on the surface, this matchup between unfamiliar opponents looks like a Week 4 non-conference battle, this one counts for an additional column in the standings.
It is the first instance of league play for the American Athletic Conference this weekend, and it’s also the long-awaited AAC debut for the Rice Owls.
Currently, the South Florida Bulls (1-2, 0-0 AAC) are generating the most attention they’ve received in years. As an average of 4.84 million viewers watched on ABC, the Bulls gave Alabama all it could handle, trading punch-for-punch with the Crimson Tide for nearly four quarters — never trailing until the 4:35 mark of the third quarter. While South Florida ultimately fell in 17-3 fashion, there were plenty of positives for the Bulls which entered the matchup as lopsided 34.5-point underdogs.
The Rice Owls (2-1, 0-0 AAC) had their moment in the limelight in Week 2, upending crosstown rival Houston for the first time since 2010 to secure the Bayou Bucket. Rice is above .500 with a favorable schedule ahead, aiming for its first winning season since 2014. The Owls played remarkably against a pair of Big 12 teams to launch the season and proved their separation from FCS competition by steamrolling Texas Southern 59-7 last Saturday. Now, they hope to claim victory in their first-ever AAC contest on the road.
Rice Owls outlook
Rice has been close to vaulting into a winner for years, but it never quite got there. This year’s team simply feels different. They finally slayed the giant in Houston which was an automatic non-conference loss throughout the 2010s and early 2020s, and they showed impressive resolve in doing so, preserving a victory despite surrendering 35 unanswered points to the Cougars.
But what separates this Rice team from previous iterations starts with the quarterback position. The Owls landed a 5-star gem from the portal last December in JT Daniels, and the journeyman has been a seamless fit in Marques Tuiasosopo’s offense. Rice hasn’t averaged as many as 233 passing yards per game since 2008, and Daniels has already revamped their aerial approach. Currently, Rice ranks 41st in the country with 268 passing yards per contest, and Daniels has a combined 656 yards and seven touchdowns in his last two starts.
Daniels’ receiving corps thinned out over the summer due to transfers, injuries, and other reasons, but what seemed to be an inexperienced group is thriving. Luke McCaffrey is the unquestioned star at the position, and the former quarterback leads the Owls in receptions at 11, amassing 171 receiving yards and four touchdowns in a stellar start. But other names such as Braylen Walker and Kobie Campbell have proven to be explosive downfield threats, and both players are over the 100-yard mark this year with averages exceeding 21 yards per reception. On passing plays, Rice runs a ton of personnel groupings featuring running backs and tight ends, and Dean Connors and Boden Groen have also excelled as short-yardage and checkdown threats for the veteran quarterback.
Pass protection is the key element of this game for Rice. Daniels faced heaps of pressure in the opener against Texas, and that led to a 14-of-26 performance with a pair of interceptions. Last week, South Florida registered five sacks on Alabama and forced the quarterbacks into quick decision-making, causing plenty of errant throws — the main factor which led to the Crimson Tide’s struggles. If Rice can provide ample protection for Daniels, an entirely different version of the passing game will be on display in Tampa. But Rice’s most experienced blocker, left tackle Clay Servin, is questionable for the game.
While the passing attack has been tremendous, Rice’s run game isn’t been where it needs to be. The Owls average just 3.1 yards per carry and 109 yards per game — good for 112th in the FBS. Last week’s 59-7 thrashing against an FCS opponent was of course an outlier performance, and on the other extreme, so was the Week 1 matchup against Texas. Dean Connors should be the most frequented option with a team-high 137 yards on the season. But Juma Otoviano, Ari Broussard, and short-yardage specialist Daelen Alexander are all other backs Rice will juggle in and out of the rotation.
Defensively, the Owls aren’t as rough as the 28.3 points allowed per game would suggest. Rice’s defense has controlled first halves of games this year, allowing just one touchdown to Texas and just one touchdown to Houston before halftime. Where the Owls thrive most is up front, and they average 2.3 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss per game. The pressure they generated against Texas was comparable to what South Florida inflicted upon Alabama, and the Owls have a great combination of a nose tackle/edge rusher duo in De’Braylon Carroll and Coleman Coco, who collectively have 4.0 sacks this year.
Teams are running quite often against Rice, and the Owls’ defense is holding firm by limiting opponents under 4.0 yards per carry. Linebackers Myron Morrison and Josh Pearcy are key contributors in this area. Playing a spy against South Florida quarterback Byrum Brown is a must, and one of these linebackers — or the team’s leading tackler Plae Wyatt — will likely be heavily utilized in that role.
On the back end, the Owls are led by cornerback Sean Fresch, who leads the unit with four pass breakups on the season. But the pass defense desperately needs to create more turnovers after logging just one interception in three games. That’s where Florida native and strong safety Gabe Taylor factors in, as he’s caused plenty of havoc with four interceptions and three forced fumbles across 2021 and 2022.
South Florida Bulls outlook
South Florida did not pick up the victory when hosting Alabama at Raymond James Stadium, but that team picked up confidence. The Bulls have beaten only one FBS opponent in the past 1,425 days, an undesirable streak dating back to late October 2019. But under first-year head coach Alex Golesh, South Florida looks in prime position to rattle off several AAC victories this year.
What went right against the machine known as Alabama? Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando dialed up a slew of blitzes and Alabama could not overcome it. The Bulls asserted their will on the Crimson Tide offensive line, and the quarterbacks struggled to extend plays against the oncoming rush. The result was five total sacks, eight tackles for loss, and Alabama’s quarterbacks combining to complete 10-of-23 passes — averaging 4.7 yards per attempt.
The ringleader of the pass rush was not the player most teams would expect. Nickelback Daquan Evans entered that matchup without a single sack since debuting in 2019, but against the Crimson Tide, he tallied three. With a week of film study and prior experience against Orlando defenses as recently as last season, Rice should be aware of these blitz packages, so South Florida might have to find other creative ways to pressure the quarterback. But that Alabama game was not a fluke in terms of pressure. generated That’s the Bulls’ identity this year, as demonstrated by its national ranking of 13th in tackles for loss and 27th in sacks.
Evans and the secondary will play a pivotal role in determining the outcome as this Daniels-led Rice unit enjoys taking downfield shots. South Florida’s passing defense currently ranks 113th in the country despite its stellar performance against Alabama, due to allowing 336 yards to a pass-happy WKU, which was expected, but 374 yards to Florida A&M of the FCS was more of a shock. South Florida did counter the run well in those matchups, and the unit should see success in limiting Rice running backs at the line of scrimmage, if both teams’ trends persist.
But they’ll need sharper coverage in the secondary. Strong safety Logan Berryhill is the playmaker to watch in this area with team-highs in both interceptions and pass breakups this year, in addition to 15 tackles.
South Florida didn’t score a single touchdown last week and was shut out for the final three quarters, but that doesn’t mean quarterback Byrum Brown didn’t perform his tail off. In just his fifth-career start against his toughest competition yet, Brown demonstrated his electrifying mobility and escapability, consistently dodging defenders en route to 92 rushing yards. And those rushing yards were net of five sacks. That’s been the Bulls’ most pressing issue this season, as they surrender the second-most sacks in the country at 5.3 per game. Still, with sack yards working in the opposite direction, Brown manages to be No. 1 in the FBS in rushing yards by a quarterback, and 23rd among all rushers, with 275.
A lot of South Florida’s offense is simply Brown improvising on broken plays or designed passes without an open target. But the Bulls feed Nay’Quan Wright and Michael Dukes sufficiently in a run-based offense which produces the 15th highest per game output in college football. Wright saw a decent outing against Alabama with 62 yards on 15 carries, and he also was a major reason the offense took command in the first half against WKU with a 111-yard explosion in that season opener.
The Bulls’ passing attack has not been the model of efficiency, and offensive line struggles certainly factor in, but better communication on routes could improve this offense by a mile. South Florida ranks in the bottom 10 in passing efficiency, completing just 51.5 percent of attempts on the season. At 162.3 yards per contest, the Bulls are 15th-to-last in passing production. That facet of the game never came to fruition against Alabama, which is another reason why just three points were generated on the scoreboard.
Sean Atkins is the premier threat in the receiving game, logging team-bests in receptions (16) and yards (142) this season. Atkins is usually seen with the ball in his hands close to the line of scrimmage and near the sideline, so he operates as the Bulls’ chief possession receiver. Their downfield option is Khafre Brown, a former North Carolina receiver with 109 yards on six receptions and two of the team’s four aerial touchdowns thus far.
Both AAC opponents are similar in that their main strength is defensive pressure, as Rice mucked up Texas’ offense in this department, while South Florida did the same deed to Alabama. Offensively, these programs couldn’t attack more different. Quarterback mobility is not a factor at Rice, but JT Daniels can drop 300 passing yards in a snap of a finger. Meanwhile Byrum Brown can utilize his elusiveness to turn 10-yard sacks into first down pickups with his legs.
It will be an interesting clash of styles, but the matchup that determines this one is Rice’s passing offense against South Florida’s passing defense. If the Owls can counter the Bulls’ pass rush with moderate levels of success, that’s a winning formula for the road team as Daniels’ increased time to throw will be a game-changer. Brown and the South Florida running back will do some damage on the ground, but in the end, the Owls emerge with a greater propensity for explosive playmaking.
Prediction: Rice 31, South Florida 21