We have come to the worst of the worst in this series. We are at the category of teams that were so bad they replaced their head coaches. David Bailiff was in his 11th year at the helm and had a good resume to show for his time. Coming into the season, the Owls were two years removed from a winning record — 2014’s 8-5 won in the Hawaii Bowl against Fresno St — and one year passed a missed window.
2017 was always going to be tough, considering the loss of Tyler Stehling to graduation. The problem was that the previous two seasons of underperforming did not allow Bailiff much room for error. The Owls played hard, as every Bailiff team did, but were too young and too out matched.
Opening against a Stanford team with a Heisman candidate did not bode well for the Owls, and it was a terrible start to the season. Having a trip to El Paso in the second week was the only solace, as the Miners were the only worse team in the league. That win in El Paso would prove to be the lone bright spot all season.
Houston won handily, and FIU showed their new hire had pushed the Panthers passed Rice even if it was by only six. Youth and inexperience were obvious as Rice struggled against Pitt and Army, but the promise and latent talent was on display against UTSA.
But for an aggressive performance by the Roadrunner’s NFL-bound Marcus Davenport, the Owls might have pulled off an upset in San Antonio. As it was, that loss kicked off a series of decent performances.
Miklo Smalls got more time at QB, and put up over three-hundred yards rushing in the final four games. Rice nearly upset a struggling Louisiana Tech at home, was blown out by UAB in Alabama, but competed well against Southern Miss, ODU, and North Texas. In that finale, Rice was able to get to CUSA Player of the Year Mason Fine often. Freshman WR Aaron Cephus was a revelation late. RB Austin Walter helped the run game convert first downs and that was partly why the offense scored so much better (20s) in November than it did previously (teens).
Given more time and maybe a little more support, David Bailiff likely would have produced more solid seasons. After all, he was the first coach to take Rice to multiple bowl games since Jess Neely in 1961. In fact, Bailiff’s four bowl appearances in 11 seasons were 50% of the previous bowl appearances in the previous 93 years of the program.
He won ten games at Rice twice, including a division champ and a league championship in 2013. Those ten-win seasons were the first since, yes, Jess Neely in 1949. He leaves holding the second-most wins in school history behind Neely, who did it in 27 years from 1940-1966. He also tied Neely for the most bowl wins with three.
After the finale, Rice soon hired Stanford’s Mike Bloomgren to bring over some of the success he had at Stanford to a school also known for academics.