Of the two hires in 2018, Mike Bloomgren at Rice and Dana Dimel at UTEP, the Owls’ hire always looked like the better one. It made sense, as Bloomgren had experience at Stanford, a place that had a lot of similarities to academics-focused Rice University.
The counterpoint to that argument was that David Bailiff, the outgoing head coach, had finished up the most winningest decade in Owl history. He won a league title in 2013, and had gone to four bowl games in that time. That is two off the program record for a head coach: Jess Neely went to six. The difference? Well, it took Neely 27 years at Rice to do that. Bailiff did it in ten.
And so we can wonder reasonably: If Bailiff got run out after all that winning (that came to a halt late in his tenure) what is to say Bloomgren can make it happen? The plan was sound if a little outdated: run the ball a ton, be physical. The most successful coaches with that approach have now abandoned that look for a more modern offense. I speak of course of Nick Saban and John Harbaugh.
But after two seasons of losing, Mike Bloomgren’s men rattled off three-straight wins to end the season. This after being the ‘best winless team in the nation’ up to that point. The warning is that Middle is in a transition year, UNT in a disappointing one, and UTEP is trying to figure out which way is up.
The good news is that every season in this league has a handful of teams with those profiles on your schedule. If Bloomgren can continue developing his program, they should be a handful and a problem next season.
August and September saw the Owls compete with Army, a good squad, stay close with Wake Forest for a half and get blown out by Texas. Then they only lost by eight to a good Baylor team, and took Tech to overtime.
In October, UAB pulled away late. Rice blew two leads late vs UTSA to lose, and finally were beat by a good USM team while holding them to 20.
In November the Owls held Marshall to 20 at home, before breaking through with the three-point win over Middle and then the big win at home over UNT. Finally they beat UTEP handily on the road to complete the season.
The easy narrative is that the program was building toward the wins for two years. The scary thing is that QB Tom Stewart is gone, and the search for the perfect QB for this team is on yet again. Wiley Green showed some good stuff before being injured and then replaced. Can he be the stoic signal caller with timely plays at the ready?
The good news is that this team is young defensively and showed an incredible effort against some of the league’s better teams. Southern Miss, UNT, and LA Tech had some good QBs and all were held. Rice only allowed 23ppg, down from 31 last year. That is a recipe for winning.
We can call 2019 successful. Bloomgren said at Media Days that he saw the progress day-to-day but was frustrated at the lack of wins. That he kept his team together and playing hard through the early losses this season is a testament to him and his team. It all paid dividends in November.
The challenge will be in keeping that up for next season as the standard for wins is raised. Three wins will get high fives in 2019, but it will get frowns and a hot seat in 2020.