Rice-SMU: Five Things To Watch

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The wholesale program evaluation David Bailiff so brazenly discussed following the Owls' 49-7 loss to UCF two weeks ago yielded some reshuffling of the depth chart and a re-emphasis on several teaching points defensively, the first of which Bailiff noted involved improving the angles defenders take to ball carriers. None of the moves are considered earth-shattering, but in truth Bailiff doesn't need to knock the planet off its axis to reverse the Owls' horrific spiral.

That Bailiff didn't keep things status quo reflects his willingness to tinker with an 0-8 team, and that's a positive. It would have been easy to keep the same players in the same positions on the two-deep, but by ruffling some feathers Bailiff is requiring accountability from his players, even during a winless season. And by revisiting the fundamentals that have been lost on the Owls during their discouraging stretch of non-competitive contests, Bailiff is proving that he won't stop attempting to teach his team a better way. Whether or not they have absorbed that instruction will be revealed over the final four weeks of the season. If the Owls are listening and learning, their adjustments plus their improved health on offense might initiate change.

1. Bring Back The Shorts. If ever there was a week in which the Owls needed to dust off their 'Protect The Ball' blue shorts it was this past week, for SMU ranks third nationally with 15 interceptions. The Mustangs' ability to turn opponents over (SMU ranks ninth in turnovers forced) has masked their mediocre defense (84th nationally in total defense) and provided a decent offense the field position needed to score just enough points to succeed. The Owls are 11th in C-USA in turnover margin (minus-11) and 115th nationally. They can't turn the ball over.

2. Fun With Numbers. Much has been made of the comparative number of freshmen and sophomores on the Owls' and Ponies' two-deeps (SMU has 27 underclassmen to the Owls' 26), but all youth is not created equal. It is true that both teams start four sophomores on the offensive line, but while Tyler Parish and Jake Hicks are the only members of the Owls' foursome to play extensively last season (the duo split reps at right tackle as redshirt freshmen), the Ponies' quartet combined for 34 starts last season, and their line is anchored by Remington Trophy candidate Mitch Enright at center. The Ponies' leading tackler (Chase Kennemer) and leader in interceptions (Rock Dennis) are seniors. In fact, three of the four Ponies with multiple picks (Bryan McCann and Kennemer) are seniors. Experience matters.

3. Trial By Fire. The knee-jerk reaction to Bailiff starting a pair of true freshmen corners (Phillip Gaines and Kevin Gaddis) against the Ponies' Run-&-Shoot offense would be to question Bailiff's logic. But, how else is he to get Chris Jammer's attention? Jammer had a solid debut in 2008, but his tackling woes - especially against UCF - have been mystifying. Jammer wasn't alone in surrendering his spot on the depth chart, with junior Chris Jones replacing sophomore Xavier Webb at free safety and walk-on David Falgout backing up junior Max Anyiam at strong safety (Willie Garley is slowed by injury). That's a lot of movement against an aerial attack.

4. Welcome Back, Jake. The Owls are getting the band back together! With right guard Jake Hicks poised to make his first start since Sept. 19 against Oklahoma State, the Owls will feature their No. 1 offensive line for the first time in seven weeks. Since then they have established a starter at quarterback (Nick Fanuzzi), have tinkered with exploiting their depth at tailback (wait for it ...), and seem inclined to get Vance McDonald and Pierre Beasley more involved. The pieces are in place for an offensive eruption at SMU. Make it happen, Coach Z.

5. The Mayor's Cup. The Owls have won three consecutive games in this series and six of the last seven meetings. SMU took its lumps by going young and suffering through a one-win campaign in 2008, and in many ways the Owls are experiencing what the Ponies endured last season. But there is no better time than the present for the Owls to get that 'W' and keep the Mayor's Cup where it belongs - on South Main, not the Hilltop. Certain things just make sense.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?

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Regarding #5...while SMU won only one game last year they were more than competitive during the second half and showed improvement most weeks something the Owls haven't this year. Losing 49-7 at home in week 8 demonstrates just how far this program has fallen and continues to fall. In week 8 of last year the Ponies lost 44-38 at UH.

It's game day again! Seems like more than a week off. Is Gaines still in a cast and is Hicks ready to play a full game on the O-line? I'm looking for Solomon to have a big day disrupting the Ponies. And are we really going to see some 2 RB sets?

Owl-88: Gaines is still in his cast and Hicks has been practicing for two weeks so he's good to go. As for the 2-back sets, that's the plan. We'll see how it unfolds. - MK

Will you be risking the live blog today? Or has that feature been put to sleep?

Tiki: I was not given clearance to run the live chat. However, as to keep myself from going insane with boredom, I will tweet occasionally during the Mayor's Cup. - MK

Guessing it wouldn't be a good career move to post on JM's game blog. But seriously, this isn't a good move on the part of the department to ban your game blog. I didn't see what the posts were that caused the problems since I was watching the mess live at the Stadium.

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