The Sports Network
By Frank Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The fifth-ranked Texas Longhorns kick off the 2010 season with an intrastate matchup against the Rice Owls at Houston's Reliant Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Texas, fresh off yet another Big 12 Conference title and an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game, which it lost to Alabama (37-21), enters this new campaign with a ton of talent, although much of it is unproven at the moment. Still, coach Mack Brown's club is poised to defend its league championship and challenge the top teams in the land for another shot at the BCS crown.
The Longhorns have posted nine consecutive 10-win seasons, the longest active streak in the nation. They are one of only two teams in college football history to accomplish such a feat, with Florida State's 14 straight seasons being the current benchmark.
After a memorable 10-win campaign in 2008, Rice came crashing back to Earth last season as numerous injuries and a youthful roster saddled the Owls with 10 defeats. Head coach David Bailiff's club dropped its first eight games of the year, seven of which were by double digits.
Struggling in all facets of the game, Rice ranked among the worst offensive and defensive teams in the nation.
Texas owns a 69-21-1 record against Rice in the all-time series, which dates back to 1914. The Longhorns have won the last 10 meetings, and 38 of the last 39 encounters between the two overall.
With former star QB Colt McCoy now in the NFL, the job of leading the Texas offense falls to sophomore Garrett Gilbert. At 6-4 and 215 pounds, Gilbert has the size, arm strength, intelligence and winning attitude to be the next great UT quarterback. He was thrust into action in the BCS title game earlier this year when McCoy went down in the first quarter, and despite the Longhorns not winning, he has the confidence of his teammates and coaches moving forward.
Coach Brown spoke recently about the expectations on Gilbert as this new season gets underway, "This is the first fair start for him. It's been his team since spring practice. Coming out of the national championship game, he's worked very hard to make good decisions and drop the ball off and lead his team. He's got a lot on his plate right now. I'm sure his head will be spinning some by Saturday. I think it's a good challenge for this team to go on the road and have to play an opener out of their comfort zone for the first time. I'm excited about watching him play."
Running back Tre' Newton (552 yards, six TDs) and receivers James Kirkendoll (48 receptions, 461 yards, six TDs) and Malcolm Williams (550 yards, two TDs), will all have to perform at or above expectations to help take some of the pressure off their new signal-caller.
Having four seniors along the offensive line should also help, although only tackle Kyle Hix and guard Michael Huey have any real starting experience.
The Longhorns dominated the defensive side of the ball in 2009, yielding a mere 16.7 ppg. Their effort against the run was stifling as foes were permitted just 72.4 ypg, ranking them first in the nation in that category. The loss of some key players means duplicating that effort will be difficult, but there is no shortage of talented guys ready to step in and make plays.
The return of last year's sack leader, DE Sam Acho (10), gives Texas a disruptive force along the defensive line, and with LB Keenan Robinson and FS Blake Gideon (six INTs in '09) also back for another go, expectations are high that the Longhorns will have another formidable defense.
The Owls, who are beginning their 99th season of college football, didn't have much success moving the ball last season, as they ranked 111th in total offense (304.6 ypg). Quarterback Nick Fanuzzi, a transfer from Alabama, made eight starts for Rice in '09 and while he struggled at times, the 6-3 junior was at his best late in the season when he threw for seven TDs in back-to-back games against SMU and Tulane.
Rice had to replace two of its top three receivers from last year and the team is in serious need of a go-to guy. Patrick Randolph is the best option to fill that role after ranking second on the team in catches (39), receiving yards (356) and touchdowns (four) last season.
The Owls are expected to get a boost on offense as RB Sam McGuffie, a Houston native who sat out last season after transferring from Michigan, is set to make his mark at his new school.
Bailiff is impressed by the way McGuffie goes about his business, "He (McGuffie) wants more carries (and) he wants to be in there pass blocking." Bailiff continued, "He doesn't care if he doesn't get the ball every snap, he just wants to play competitive football every snap. He is amazing because he's not worried about his carries."
Charles Ross is also back after a solid rookie campaign that saw him gain 343 of his team-best 491 yards and seven of his 11 scores in the final five games. Tyler Smith ranked second with 428 yards, and the hope is that stable of backs will help the Owls raise last season's rushing average of 109.3 ypg.
The ground attack should flourish even more with the return of all five starters along the line, including Scott Mitchell. The 6-4, 290-pound left tackle earned Second Team All-Conference USA honors in 2009 and has started 30 consecutive games.
The Rice defense ranked dead last in scoring last season (43.1 ppg) and 117th in total defense (464.0 ypg), but the coaching staff is optimistic that the return of several starters will help turn things around.
It all starts up front where DEs Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu serve as the line's anchors. Both have a wealth of experience, and they combined for 124 tackles last year.
Justin Hill is the team's most experienced linebacker, though he is a former running back who led the team in rushing in 2007. Last season, Hill earned five starts and showed his potential by logging 25 tackles and a sack.
The secondary boasts the return of S Travis Bradshaw, who returns after leading the FBS with an average of 7.5 unassisted tackles per game in 2009. Bradshaw finished with 121 total stops, nearly twice as many as his closest teammate. Corners Phillip Gaines and Chris Jammer combined for 16 starts in '09, but Rice had only six INTs as a team, so getting after the ball will be paramount to any success the defense achieves this fall.
Overall, Bailiff is optimistic about his team this season, "We have a chance to be a much improved football team. We have matured over the last season and we're bigger, faster, and stronger. We expect to win and we expect to go to a bowl game."
The Owls may enjoy a better season in 2010, but this game will end up in favor of the Longhorns. Texas is probably a step or two behind Oklahoma in the Big 12 and teams like Alabama and Ohio State on the national stage, but keeping that double-digit wins record intact is likely.