For the first time since 2014, Rice qualified for a bowl game, with former conference foe Southern Miss on tap in the LendingTree Bowl on Saturday in Mobile, Ala.
Rice (5-7) posted its best regular-season record under fifth-year coach Mike Bloomgren, even with a win total not normally good enough for bowl eligibility. When only 79 FBS teams reached six wins and three more bowl berths remained, the 5-7 teams with the highest academic progress rates (APR) were selected to fill out the remaining spots.
The Owls had the highest APR of the group, a 994 rating of a possible 1,000. The metric measures student-athlete eligibility and retention.
"It does (matter) because they're Rice students and because they're the top APR at a school like Rice where no class is easy," Bloomgren said. "Earning it at a place like Rice at 5-7, yeah, I guess that's still earning it. It's a step forward for this team, but I believe there's more in this team than being a 5-7 team that goes to a bowl."
The Owls started 5-4 before losing their final three games. Their last win came against UTEP, 37-30, on a last-minute touchdown pass from TJ McMahon to Bradley Rozner.
McMahon has thrown for 2,102 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions to lead Rice. All-Conference USA second-team center Shea Baker will play in his school-record 55th straight game.
Rice and Southern Miss (6-6) are plenty familiar with one another as Conference USA members from 2005 through 2021. Before the 2022 season, Southern Miss, Marshall and Old Dominion left C-USA for the Sun Belt ahead of schedule in a contentious move.
The Owls won the past two meetings of the all-time series, which is tied 6-6.
"They've played a lot of really close games and they do a great job controlling the clock, not giving up big plays defensively and really trying to slow the game down," Southern Miss coach Will Hall said. "They play extremely hard and physical. We played a hard-fought game with them last year where they got us, and I got great respect for how they've built their program back to respectability."
The Golden Eagles gained bowl eligibility by beating UL Monroe 20-10 in the regular-season finale. Frank Gore Jr. ran for a career-high 199 yards and a touchdown.
Hall, in his second season, has led Southern Miss to its first bowl berth since 2019. The Golden Eagles last won a bowl in 2016. Southern Miss is 11-15 all-time in bowl games, while Rice is 7-5.
--Field Level Media
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