HOUSTON (AP) — The standards are high at Rice, and that's starting to go for the football team as well as the academics.
The Owls won their first solo conference championship in 57 years last year and finished 10-4, the second 10-win season since 2008. The only other 10-win season came in 1949.
Coach David Bailiff says conference championships and bowl games are no longer pipe dreams for a program that was known mostly for losing before Bailiff arrived in 2007. The Owls have won 15 of their last 19 games and played in two straight bowl games.
"We talked about being the hardest working and smartest team in the conference," Bailiff said. "And then the messaging changed to where we now expect to make a bowl game. And then the messaging changed again to where we expect conference championships. We've been on nice progress, where the guys are excited about expectations."
Rice is turning the offense over to Driphus Jackson, who backed up Taylor McHargue for the past two seasons. Jackson relieved McHargue late in the home opener last year, and guided the Owls for a touchdown in a 23-14 win over Kansas. Jackson went 5 of 16 for 50 yards with an interception last season.
"He has patiently waiting his turn for three years," Bailiff said of Jackson. "Every time we've put him into a game, he's been ready, he's performed. It's really been a seamless transition. Driphus has a complete understanding of the offense, his leadership transcends this football team. He's a total package for us."
Jackson solidified the starting job in the spring and will have experienced receivers to help him along. Senior Jordan Taylor led the Owls with 55 catches for 848 yards in 2013 and Dennis Parks made 29 catches for 508 yards.
Here are five things to look for as Rice begins its eighth season under Bailiff:
RUNNING BACK RENEWAL: Rice led Conference USA in rushing last season, but lost the league's top rusher Charles Ross to graduation. Bailiff is turning to multiple backs to replace the production left by Ross' departure. Ross ran for 1,280 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013. Sophomore Darik Dillard, the brother of former record-setting Rice receiver Jarett Dillard, had 82 carries for 396 yards last season. Jowan Davis, another sophomore, came on late in the season and finished with 455 yards rushing. Bailiff also said that Brandon Hamilton, who redshirted as a sophomore, will get some carries.
TOUGH SLEDDING: Rice's schedule is typically demanding at the start, with a road trips to Notre Dame and Texas A&M first up. The Owls also play at Southern Miss and visit Marshall, the team they defeated in the Conference USA championship game.
"If you really do have a desire to get your football team better, you play a good team," Bailiff said, "and you know right now where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are."
DOUBLING UP?: The Owls have a chance to win back-to-back conference championships for the first time in school history.
GOOD CHRISTIAN: Defensive tackle Christian Covington is on multiple watch lists for individual postseason awards. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Covington led the team with a career-high 11½ tackles for loss, including four sacks, in 2013. Covington's father, Grover, is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame after playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats from 1981-91.
"Christian is the most athletic big man I've ever been around," Bailiff said. "He was raised to play this game, he was raised to rush the passer."
HIGH-WATER MARK: Six wins this year would give Rice 23 victories over the past three seasons, a school record.