Over/Under For the 2009 Owls

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Face it: No matter how confident you may be in this experienced defense, the potential for improvement on special teams, or the uncanny ability of David Bailiff to shed a positive light on the most dreadful scenario, it's difficult to get a read on how the 2009 season will play out. Last season, with Chase Clement, Jarett Dillard, James Casey and a trio of senior offensive linemen in the fold, you at least had an inkling of the offense's prowess. This season? You don't know diddly. Whether or not you want to admit so rests solely on your myopic shoulders.

Will the revamped O-line jell? Will the two-quarterback system work until one candidate rises above the other? Will the tailback quintet combine to produce a formidable running game? Will the young receivers supply quality depth? Will the freshmen on defense sink or swim?

Well, since statistics never lie, the obvious solution to your concerns is to play a little over/under on the upcoming season. I'll provide 10 numbers with corresponding information and you take the over or under, which should give you a gauge on key aspects of this season.

1. Receptions for Sr. TE/Y-receiver Taylor Wardlow: 32. Quietly Wardlow enjoyed a terrific camp. His hands were reliable, route running dependable, and maturity apparent. Bailiff loves to chat about the senior rush, and Wardlow is as good a candidate as any to finally fulfill his potential in his last go-around in a Rice uniform. And, given the absence of Dillard and Casey, the quarterbacks are more apt to spread the wealth, especially in the slot. Of course, Wardlow will begin the season with 32 career catches, so doubling his total might be a bit of a stretch.

2. Combined sacks for Jr. DEs Scott Solomon and Cheta Ozougwu: 12. Solomon and Ozougwu combined for 4.5 sacks as freshmen (all by Solomon) and eight sacks last season. Solomon will play the role of John Randle and man the tackle slot with frequency against UAB, and how that experiment unfolds might impact how often he lines up next to John Gioffre. It seems too conservative to predict that tandem averaging just one sack per game, yet neither has recorded half a dozen sacks by themselves over the first two seasons of their careers.

3. Team rushing yards/game: 146.3. As most everyone recalls, the Owls were abysmal running the football two seasons ago (110.9 yards/game - ranked 103rd nationally), and a miraculous second-half push last season bumped their average to a respectable 143.7 yards/game, which ranked 63rd of 120 FBS teams. The assumption is that with five tailbacks and a bigger, stronger, faster offensive line, the Owls should strike a more successful run-pass mix. Given their meager to modest history of late, finishing in the top 60 would mark progress.

4. Combined INTs by Soph. CBs Chris Jammer and Jarret Ben: 6. In each of the Owls' two seasons under Bailiff and his 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the cornerback with the most interceptions finished with three. Brandon King pulled the trick in 2007, and Chris Douglas shared the team lead with free safety Andrew Sendejo last season. If Jammer and Ben record three apiece that's six, but that would require both to remain healthy and active. It's a safe bet that teams will test the Owls' young corners, especially given the Owls' experience at safety.

5. Touchdown catches by Sr. WR Toren Dixon: 10. T.D. has been the model of consistency during his career - well, at least in terms of representing the No. 5. He had five receptions as a true freshman in 2006, and five touchdowns grabs in each of the past two seasons. Bailiff has made frequent proclamations that Dixon should double his receptions total (50) from last season, but Dillard never caught 100 passes in a single season. What isn't out of the question is Dixon doubling his touchdown total from last season, which would match his career output. 

6. Combined tackles by safeties Andrew Sendejo and Travis Bradshaw: 167. If Sendejo meets his average of the past two seasons, campaigns in which he paced the Owls in tackles, he will tally 100 this season and approach the school career mark of 367 held by O.J. Brigance (1987-90). Bradshaw posted 89 tackles, second to Sendejo, despite not joining the starting lineup until midway through last season. The 4-2-5 is designed to funnel ball carriers to the safeties, and under Bailiff the top two safeties totaled 151 tackles in 2007 and 183 last year.

7. Most receptions by a non-senior: 31. During the Owls' three seasons operating the spread offense, their third leading receiver totaled 31 receptions (Tommy Henderson) in 2006, 46 (Dixon) the following year and 50 (Dixon) last season. The odds are good that Dixon, Wardlow and Corbin Smiter, another senior, will pace the Owls in receptions this season, but who will finish fourth? Junior Patrick Randolph, who was fourth last season with 16 receptions? RS freshman Derek Clark, who displayed big-play potential throughout camp? Or one of the freshmen tight ends: Vance McDonald or Luke Willson? And, with greater balance in both the passing and rushing attacks, how many balls does that leave for the fourth-leading receiver?

8. Turnover ratio: plus-8. If it's one thing we've learned as a group watching the Owls the past three seasons it's that turnovers matter. When the Owls went bowling for the first time in a generation in 2006, they finished the season with a plus-8 turnover margin. When the wheels fell off the wagon in their first season under Bailiff, the Owls finished minus-2. Last season, when they won seven consecutive games to close the schedule and posted their first postseason win in eons, they Owls finished at an astonishing plus-15. If they are that good again, they'll be back in the postseason, but that is a gaudy number for a 12-game schedule.

9. Rushing yards for Sr. QB John Thomas Shepherd: 307. No way the offense needs Shepherd to run as often as Clement did over his final two seasons (1,228 yards and 20 TDs), right? If Shepherd rushed for half the total Clement averaged over that span, it means he's played well enough to remain a viable part of the offense, yet the Owls have rightfully relied on their collection of tailbacks. If Shepherd approaches 500 rushing yards, either the tailbacks failed to meet expectations, or the other quarterback dropped out of the lingering competition.

10. Passing yards for Soph. QB Nick Fanuzzi: 1,818. Jeez, where does one begin here? Will Fanuzzi see enough action to pass for the average of Clement's sophomore season plus half his passing yards as a junior and senior? Does he play well enough early to win the job outright and pass for 2,000 yards while still leaning on the potentially competent tailbacks? Or does he exceed these modest expectations and burn porous C-USA defenses for 3,000 yards? Where is the middle ground for a quarterback who is alternating snaps with another?

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1. U
2. U
3. O
4. U
5. O
6. O
7. U
8. O
9 O
10. U

Optimistic Owl: Wow, taking the under on Fanuzzi. That's interesting. - MK

Great blog topic.

1. Under. The emergence of Willson and McDonald mean less opportunities for Taylor. Vance just offers too much athleticism, I expect him to command most of the PT by midseason on.

2. Unfortunately under. These guys need to show they can get to the QB and register the drive-killing sacks.

3. Over. This will be the revelation of 2009. I expect great things from our quintet of RB's.

4. Over. CB play is going to emerge as a strength. The only way this gets under is due to injury or if one of the freshman pushes Jammer/Ben for PT.

5. Tough one, but I'll go over, because I think Dixon is poised for a great year. He had as many big 3rd down catches as anyone last year. He'll be great in 2009.

6. Over. These guys are beasts. The only way they don't reach this # of tackles is if they get injured, or the DL/LB play is extraordinary. Let's hope for the latter.

7. Over. Someone will step up. I think McDonald or Clark.

8. Under. Young players at skill positions will turn the ball over.

9. Under. Fanuzzi will quickly earn the majority of the snaps. Even if that's not the case and they continue to split reps, I can't see defenses giving JT that much room given his lack of downfield throwing ability.

10. Over. If he gets the reps, he can throw the ball. I expect he'll quickly earn the reps.

1. Under, because I think Vance McDonald and Luke Willson will take some of those catches.

2. Over, the sack numbers have been disappointing the past two seasons. I think this is the year Solly and Cheta break out. Everyone's been raving about Solly, but I think Cheta could really surprise with his speed. I'm hoping for a mini-Jerry Hughes 3rd year improvement.

3. Over, but again I think this average will increase over the course of the season like last year.

4. Even. 6 seems a reasonable number there. Phillip Gaines may snatch a couple too, his ball skills are evident.

5. Even. Tough one here. I could see the passing game going in two directions, either really spreading the ball around, or honing in on a few primary targets like the past two seasons. If the latter happens, over.

6. Over. These guys are going to clean up this year. First victim: Joe Webb.

7. Even. Another tough one. I could see both Clark and Randolph getting around 30. Depends on how the passing game develops.

8. Over. This defense is primed to force a lot of turnovers and this coaching staff coaches ball protection above all else on offense. So even with the inexperience there, I think drive stalls will be more common than turnovers.

9. Even. I see about 300 coming his way this year. What about his punt return yards? ;)

10. Over. I've been touting Fanuzzi as the guy the whole offseason, and I'm not going to bail now. His numbers will be slow coming in the early part of the season, but down the stretch in C-USA, look out.

1. Under. I think there will be too many eager hands grabbing for receptions to get this many to the tight end.
2. Over. These two are going to make a BIG impact this year
3. Over. I can’t look at the talent in the backfield and not expect more out of them.
4. Under. I actually think 6 is a good number for this pair.
5. Over. I think TD will be the go-to guy for the Owls that Dillard was. I think an even dozen is a realistic total.
6. Over. Definitely these two will top this number.
7. Under. Tough for an underclassman to pick up that many.
8. Under. It’s a tough number to figure. I’m guessing plus-6
9. Under. I don’t think the QB rushing total will be particularly high this season no matter who’s under center.
10. Over. If he takes over the starter’s job quickly he should get over this number.

1. Over. It's close, but I think Wardlow will get a lot more chances than in previous years.

2. Over, and we'll need it. Solomon is so good on the edge. I am not wild about needing him inside.

3. Over. 160ish would be nice.

4. Under. Historically our int numbers have been relatively low and spread among players.

5. Over. This may be optimistic, but it sounds like we're planning on going Dixon's way a lot.

6. Under. Unconventional, I know, but I'm hoping for more stops from the front 6.

7. Over. Randolph.

8. Under.

9 and 10. This boils down to who gets most of the snaps, and I'm not making a prediction on that. If they split equally, I think both are close unders. If one gets the bulk of the snaps, his will be over.

A whole lot of unders on this list tells the story. Thanks for your great coverage all year.

At Ease: You beat me to reviewing that post; I'll get to it this week. And thanks for the kind words. This season was difficult for all involved, believe me on that. - MK

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