Sports

Take the Over on two Texas-based college football programs

With the college football season just a little over a month away, now is a good time to find some value on season win totals — before the NBA season ends and the public eye starts shifting to the pigskin markets. Here are some that deserve attention:

Rice Over 5.5: Wait, is this 1957, when Jess Neely’s Owls were Cotton Bowl-bound and boasted the next year’s top NFL draft pick, King Hill, at quarterback? No, this is 2021, and for the first time in a long time there is genuine excitement at Rice — where what once seemed a suicidal resolve to install a Stanford-type, power offense coached by David Shaw disciple Mike Bloomgren is starting to pay dividends.

The Owls impressed during their compressed 2020 slate and were in position to win all five of their games. They return eight defensive starters from the stingiest Rice unit since the Neely era, ranking 12th nationally in scoring defense. With depth on the offensive line and a big wide receiver target in 6-foot-5 Bradley Rozner (55 catches in 2019 before opting out in 2020), all Bloomgren needs is a quarterback.

The transfer market provided options including ex-Nebraska QB Luke McCaffrey (NFL RB Christian’s brother) and former Weber State QB Jake Constantine, who started 23 games for the Wildcats and has 33 career TD passes.

True, the schedule opens like an old Southwest Conference slate (Arkansas, Houston and Texas). But even if the Owls swallow the big doughnut against that trio, plenty of wins await in the watered-down Conference USA, and they also play crosstown FCS team Texas Southern. Bloomgren can get Rice to a bowl and start to gain mention as the heir-apparent at Stanford whenever Shaw decides it’s time to move to the NFL.

Air Force Over 6.5:  Underestimate Falcons coach Troy Calhoun at your own risk. With the exception of 2013, when injuries decimated his roster, Calhoun’s Air Force teams have usually punched above their weight.

The Falcons split six games last year despite almost their entire projected defense opting out. Several starters from the 2019 defense will resurface to compete with many who stepped into their roles a year ago, with the result likely a highly combative unit. That has often been the ingredient to the most successful Calhoun teams.

On the other side of the ball, longtime offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen is usually able to cobble together a functional option-based attack. In fact, the offense led the nation in rushing a year ago. Starters must be replaced en masse along the line, but reloading up front is standard operating procedure for the Falcons, and Haaziq Daniels flashed enough upside in his quarterback audition last fall to suggest this could be another dynamic Calhoun offense.

The schedule presents many win opportunities, with non-conference games against Florida Atlantic and Commander-in-Chief foes Army and Navy all winnable, besides many opportunities for wins in the modest Mountain West. Getting above .500 and to another bowl is well within reach.

Steve Sarkisian
Steve Sarkisian
AP

Texas Over 8: For some reason, it became almost obligatory for sports analysts to degrade the Longhorns in the Tom Herman era, and many are doing it again even as Steve Sarkisian takes control after a successful stint as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator with title-winning Alabama. Sarkisian inherits a program that was a handful of plays from playoff consideration a year ago after narrow losses by two and three points, and another in overtime against Oklahoma.

We also saw enough of sophomore QB Casey Thompson in the blowout of Colorado in the Alamo Bowl to suggest he could be a worthy successor to four-year starter Sam Ehlinger, though sophomore Hudson Card has some support. Whichever QB takes snaps will spend time handing off to sophomore RB Bijan Robinson, perhaps the highest-touted back from the 2020 recruiting class and posed for a breakout after gaining 8.2 ypc last fall. An experienced secondary and plenty of potential within the front seven suggests the defense should be at least functional. 

Meanwhile, Sarkisian will embrace this second chance as a head coach after the USC adventure went off the rails and he was fired in 2015. The combination of his Pac-12 experience plus the rehabilitation of his reputation under Saban suggests Sarkisian should hardly be over his head in the Big 12.

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