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Houston (0-3) vs. Rice (1-3)

The Sports Network

DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 29, 3:30 p.m. (et)

FACTS & STATS: Site: Reliant Stadium (71,500) -- Houston, Texas. Television:Fox Sports Net. Home Record: Houston 0-2, Rice 0-2. Away Record: Houston 0-1, Rice 1-1. Neutral Record: Houston 0-0, Rice 0-0. Conference Record: Houston 0-0, Rice 0-1. Series Record: Houston leads, 27-11.

GAME NOTES: The Houston Cougars open up their final season of Conference USA play and attempt to pick up the first win of the Tony Levine era as they head to Reliant Stadium for the Bayou Bucket Bowl versus the Rice Owls.

The Cougars are experiencing a much different journey this year after nearly reaching a BCS bowl game last season with Chase Keenum leading the charge. Houston lost to Texas State (30-13), Louisiana Tech (56-49), and UCLA (37-6) to fall to 0-3. The Cougars' already made a change on their coaching staff this season as offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt abruptly resigned after the season opener. The offense has not been much better under the leadership of its new coordinator, Travis Bush. Houston had a bye week after its loss to the Bruins to prepare for this inner city clash.

Although they saw their record drop to 1-3 their last time out, the Owls delivered another spirited effort in their 54-51 double overtime loss to Marshall. Rice went head-to-head with the Thundering Herd as the teams combined for over 1,200 yards of total offensive in the slugfest. The Owls' lone victory came in a dramatic road victory over Kansas. Coach David Bailiff had to be pleased with his team's recent offensive outburst, but there is still a clear need to address some issues on the defensive side of the ball.

This will be the 39th installment of the rivalry between crosstown rivals, which is also known as the Bayou Bucket Bowl. Houston owns a 27-11 lead in the all-time series. This is just the second time the game will be played at a neutral site in the series. This will be the final Conference USA matchup between these squads as Houston is scheduled to migrate to the Big East next season.

Houston's offense is just a shadow of what it was last season. It still ranks sixth in the FBS with an average of 346.7 passing yards per contest, but its averaging just 22.7 points per game.

There was hope junior QB David Piland could step back into the starting role this season and lead the Cougars to similar success of 2011. Piland started for the majority of the 2010 season after Keenum went down with an injury and passed for 2,641 yards with 24 TDs to 12 INTs. Piland showed promise in the team's high-scoring loss to LaTech, throwing for 580 yards and four scores, but he followed that performance with five interceptions against UCLA.

Piland's top two wideouts are Daniel Spencer and Dewayne Peace. Spender ranks second and Peace ranks third in the C-USA in receiving yards with 265 and 257, respectively.

Charles Sims was expected to have a big season as the team's feature back. However, the junior suffered a hip injury which kept him out of the most recent contest. His return for this Saturday is questionable, which means redshirt freshman Kenneth Farrow could be the starter.

The Cougars are just as poor defensively as their counterparts in this one with allowed averages of 536.3 yards and 41 points per game. Even against Texas State, a first-year FBS program, Houston looked lost defensively. It gave up over 1,100 combined yards in its two games since.

Rice's offensive attack was at its best with Taylor McHargue leading the attack. The junior quarterback was named the league's offensive player of the week after he tallied a career-best 467 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. However, McHargue was injured near the end of regulation and did not return in the contest, and his availability is questionable for this weekend's instate duel.

If McHargue is unable to go, Driphus Jackson will get the start. Jackson is a freshman scrambler with great mobility, but he is not a big time threat as a passer.

The Owls may need to rely on running back Charles Ross (244 yards, 37 carries) to take pressure off of the injured McHargue or rookie Jackson. Taylor Jordan has been the best option in the passing game and enters Saturday with 22 catches for 284 yards. Slot receiver Sam McGuffie is a big play threat every time he touches the ball. McGuffie, a former starting Michigan running back, scored twice and finished with a career-best 109 receiving yards in last week's loss.

Rice's defense has been torched by opponents this season. It ranks second to last in the FBS in average total defense (546.8) and last in average scoring defense (45.8) through four games. There are clear holes in both the rush defense and the secondary for the Owls.

McHargue's status is going to be a huge factor in the outcome of this game. Both teams should have no problem putting points on the board, but the Owls might be in trouble if Houston is able to stack up against the run with Jackson under center. Piland cannot afford to commit nearly as many turnovers. Last week, Rice showed it will fight to the bitter end and it almost pulled off a huge comeback. It would not be a huge surprise if the Owls pull off an upset with or without McHargue, as rivalry games like these often yield unexpected results.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Houston 42, Rice 41

09/26 10:41:54 ET