UCLA is hoping to usher in the Jim Mora era in grand fashion when the Bruins visit Rice for the season opener Thursday in Houston.
The game, which starts at 4:30 p.m. PT and will be nationally televised by CBS Sports Network, marks Mora's first as a college head coach and he couldn't ask for a better opponent in which to kick off his collegiate career.
The Owls are coming off of a 4-8 season in which they finished No. 111 in the nation in total defense by giving up 462.08 yards per game. They gave up 278.67 yards through the air to rank No. 112 in that category. On paper, it appears to bode well for UCLA's new spread offense, but Mora isn't conceding anything because he sees the Owls as a well-coached team that plays smart football.
"The thing that stands out most to me is the way they play disciplined and they play hard and they’re fundamentally sound," Mora said.
Rice promoted secondary coach Chris Thurmond to defensive coordinator after last season in an effort to remedy the porous defense, but with three starters gone from the defensive line it could take time. That's not to say the Owls, who run a 4-2-5 base defense, don't have good players on defense.
Cornerback Bryce Callahan was a freshman All-American last season after leading Conference USA with six interceptions. They also have linebacker Cameron Nwosu returning after he led the team with 108 tackles and returned two fumbles for touchdowns.
On offense, Rice runs a high-tempo spread that is similar to UCLA's. Quarterback Taylor McHargue returns after a season in which he lost the starting job because of persistent turnovers. He passed for 1,072 yards and eight touchdowns, but had five passes intercepted and fumbled seven times.
If McHargue can hold on to the ball, he has some weapons to help him. Receiver Sam McGuffie is the most electric player on the offense. He's a 5-10, 200-pound speedster that Mora said reminds him of Bruins' running back Steven Manfro.
McGuffie, a transfer from Michigan two years ago, sat out much of last season with an injury, but was the team's leader in rushing and receptions in 2010.
"He's powerfully built, an excellent open field runner, he’s got great quickness, they can hand him the ball, they can throw him the ball," Mora said. "He’s tough to defend one on one and he’s a lot of fun to watch. He’s a good football player."
The Owls also boast a trio of similarly-built tight ends in Luke Willson
(CQ), Vance McDonald and Taylor Cook. All are about 6-5, 255 and Willson and McDonald are legitimate NFL prospects. Willson led the team in receiving last season.
The biggest concern for Rice early on is the offensive line. Only guard Drew Carroll (6-4, 280) returns from last year's starters and the Owls may be starting two freshmen up front. Seeing as how UCLA's defensive line is among its deepest and most experienced units, this battle in the trenches could be a significant advantage for the Bruins.
Rice also boasts one of the nation's top kickers in Chris Boswell, a Lou Groza Award candidate who made 17 of 21 field goal attempts last season and tied for the national lead with three makes from 50 yards or more.