Rice Football is set to open its 2021 season on Saturday at Arkansas. How to watch, key stats, x-factor picks and more.
The 2021 Rice Football season opens this coming Saturday against Arkansas. The quarterback battle remains unsettled, but expectations for the Owls’ 2021 season remain high.
The Owls’ first opponent, Arkansas, also finds itself riding a wave of increasing expectation. The Razorbacks showed progress under Sam Pittman last fall, proving to be a tough out in the SEC despite their first-year coach at the helm. Getting back to a bowl game is part of the marching orders in 2021, and that starts, they believe, with a home tilt with Rice.
We’ll preview Rice football vs Arkansas on this week’s episode of The Roost Podcast which will be released later in the week. Find us on the podcast page or wherever you like to listen to podcasts. (And consider leaving us a 5-star review while you’re at it.) If you haven’t yet, consider checking out our extended offseason interviews with folks like Phil Steele, Shehan Jeyarajah, and notable Owls like Christian Covington, Jack Fox, Austin Trammell, Aston Walter and more!
Sizing up the contenders
Rice football is kicking off its season on Labor Day Weekend, more than a month ahead on the calendar of when they opened their 2020 season. Last fall the Owls played their first game on October 24, just barely getting two games in before the calendar turned to November. This time around they’ll open against another team playing their first game, rather than their seventh.
Last season went better for Arkansas than in years past, but the Hogs have had trouble in their most recent outings with Conference USA opponents. They fell to Western Kentucky 45-19 in 2019 and lost to North Texas 44-17 in 2018. That was under a different coaching staff, but the losses still sting.
All Time | Arkansas leads 35-29-3
Last Five | Arkansas leads 4-1
Last Meeting | Road 1991, Arkansas won 20-0
Rice Stat Notables (Returning 2020 Leaders)
Passing | McCaffrey (at Nebraska) – 48/76 (63.2 percent), 466 yards, 1 TD, 6 INT
Rushing | Griffin – 72 carries, 249 yards (3.5 yards per carry)
Receiving | Myers – 24 receptions, 209 yards (8.7 yards per reception), 1 TD / Bailey – 23 receptions, 276 yards (12.0 yds/rec), 2 TD
Tackles | Garcia- 28 / Chamberlain – 27 / Montero – 24
Pass Breakups/Interceptions | Bird – 3 PBU, Five returning players tied with 1 INT
Arkansas Stat Notables (Returning 2020 Leaders)
Passing | Jefferson – 20/41 (48.8 percent), 295 yards passing, 3 TD, 0 INT
Rushing | Smith – 134 carries, 710 yards (5.3 yards per carry), 5 TD
Receiving | Burks – 51 receptions, 820 yards (6.1 yards per reception), 7 TD / Smith – 22 receptions, 159 yards (7.2 yds/rec), 1 TD
Tackles | Morgan – 110 / Pool – 101 / Catalon – 99
Interceptions/Pass Breakups | Morgan, Pool, Brown – 5 PBU / Catalon, Clark – 3 INT
Arkansas X-Factor | Will the front seven turn the corner?
Arkansas was, for the most part, unable to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season. Their 14 sacks in the span of 10 games were the fewest of any SEC team and nine of those sacks came in their first four games. The more they put on tape, the less pressure they were able to generate.
That’s going to have to change if Arkansas is going contend with the rigors of an SEC schedule, but it’s equally imperative against the Owls, too. Rice hasn’t been particularly effective on third and long under Mike Bloomgren and has seen drives stall out when the sticks get too far away. If Arkansas can put Rice behind the chains early, they’ll force them off schedule.
There’s optimism that the Rice passing game is going to be better in 2021 than in the recent past, but that doesn’t change the Owls’ commitment to running the football. More pressure will throw those plans out of whack. Arkansas needs to find a way to make that happen.
Rice X-Factor | Generate explosive plays
Rice averaged 1.3 gains of 30+ yards per game in 2020, near the bottom of Conference USA. The Arkansas defense allowed 1.9 such explosive plays last fall, one of the better marks in the SEC. If Rice ends this game anywhere in that ballpark when it comes to field-flipping type plays, they’ll be in trouble.
The defense proved it could win games on its own in 2020, accounting for five turnovers and a defensive score in the shutout win against Marshall. But that’s more likely to be the exception than the rule moving forward. Rice is going to have to help its defense by sprinkling in some big offensive plays, too.
Whether it’s via the legs of one of Luke McCaffrey, their stable of running backs or a big catch from a suddenly deep receiving corps, Rice needs to find ways to shorten drives and maximize every offensive possession. If they can get a couple of big plays in each half they’ll force Arkansas onto their heels, in turn, enabling the Rice defense to feast.
Pick ‘Em Contest (Subscribers only)
Make sure you submit your entry for The Roost’s weekly pick’em challenge. There will be swag and prizes for the top finishers at the end of the season. Choose an answer to each of the six questions below and comment on this post on the Patreon page to enter. It’s that easy.
Injury Report (Subscribers only)
The Roost’s 2021 Rice Football Season Preview has FIVE pages dedicated to every opponent the Owls face. There are depth charts, important new arrivals and positional breakdowns for every team in Conference USA sourced from local beat writers and sources on the ground who cover these teams every day. It’s the most thorough C-USA publication on the market.
One Final Thing
There hasn’t been any beating around the bush when it comes to discussing expectations at South Main. Rice football expects to be playing in a bowl game at the end of this season, which makes the nonconference slate all the more important. The schedule is brutal (at Arkansas, vs Houston, at Texas, vs Texas Southern), but postseason rules won’t be as forgiving in 2021.
We’re going to learn a lot about this team over the next four weeks, starting with the opener against Arkansas. Be patient. The schedule will get easier and the talent on this team will shine through.
With that quick caveat, it’s also worth noting oddsmakers give Rice a better chance of beating Arkansas (the Owls are currently 20-point underdogs) than they did to beat Marhsall (Rice entered that game as 24-point underdogs). Math isn’t deciding the outcome of this game, but the “experts” are giving Rice a fighting chance. Sometimes, that’s all you need.