Rice football has one finish in program history inside the AP Top 5, the 1949 season in which the Owls won the Southwestern Conference and the Cotton Bowl on their way to a 10-1 finish.
The 1949 Rice football team will forever be known as the greatest team in school history. They plowed through the Southwestern Conference, going undefeated in conference play. That earned them and a trip to the Cotton Bowl where they drubbed North Carolina 27-13 after jumping out to a 27-0 lead.
The 1o-1 season culminated in a No. 5 ranking in the AP Poll. That is still the highest finish in school history and one of four top-10 finishes. Coach Jess Neely, the head man in 1949, is responsible for all four of those top-10 results. Not only have the Owls not sniffed the top 10 since he departed following the 1966 season, they haven’t been ranked inside the Top 25 at all.
Recent shortcomings aside, what the Owls accomplished in ’49 is nothing short of extraordinary. They beat Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker and SMU and topped Texas on a last-second field goal, faltering only to LSU early on in the season 14-7. If that result ended in the Owls’ favor they could have been in the mix along with undefeated Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Cal and Army for the school’s first and only national championship.
Even without the title, the accomplishments of the 1949 team were plentiful. Led by Froggy Williams, Tobin Rote and Billy Burkhalter the Owls combined a lethal offense with a stingy defense. Williams, who doubled as the team’s kicking specialist, ended his impressive career with 75 career PATs and 156 total points, both records that stood for more than three decades. He earned All-American honors as a senior following the 1949 season.
The 1949 season was so successful that it galvanized interest in the completion of Rice Stadium. The 70,000 full capacity structure was opened for the beginning of the 1950 season.