After 12 regular-season games and almost a month of bowl-related preparations, the bottom line for the 2012 football season boils down to a simple math equation for Rice and Air Force in today's Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
A victory by either the Owls (6-6) or the Falcons (6-6) at Amon G. Carter Stadium means a winning record and some positive vibes for that school to take away from Fort Worth. For the loser, there's a permanent stain on a once-promising season.
"It's the difference between a winning record and a losing record," said Air Force linebacker Austin Niklas, a senior from Fullerton, Calif.. "Every coach and every player wants to go out with a winning record."
For Air Force, a winning record has been an annual occurrence throughout the tenure of coach Troy Calhoun, in his sixth season at the school. The Falcons have posted five consecutive winning records under Calhoun, as well as 14 winning marks in the past 18 seasons.
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The long-term success rate has not been as pronounced at Rice, where Owls' football teams have posted only eight winning records in the past 50 seasons, with seven of them since 1992.
Rice's only bowl victory in the past 59 seasons came in the school's last appearance, a 38-14 victory over Western Michigan in the 2008 Texas Bowl. That is why Owls tight end Vance McDonald, one of seven seniors on this year's roster, considers today's matchup particularly significant for Rice.
"We want to be remembered as having a winning record and we don't have too many of those," McDonald said. "That would be a huge step for us.... We certainly have our focus on executing and going out and winning the game."
Rice center Nate Richards, a Keller High School graduate, described today's matchup as "a must-win" game for the Owls, who rebounded from a 1-5 start and closed the regular season with a four-game winning streak to become bowl eligible. The turnaround, players and coaches said, occurred when cornerback Phillip Gaines issued a challenge to teammates after a 14-10 loss to Memphis on Oct. 6.
"Phillip... basically just called everybody out," quarterback Taylor McHargue said. "He told us to be accountable for the rest of the season, saying, 'This is our legacy and we're not going to get another shot at this.' I think that really hit home with a lot of guys."
Rice has lost only once since Gaines' speech, a 28-24 setback against Tulsa, the Conference USA champions. Because the Owls will return 19 of today's projected starters (nine on offense, 10 on defense), coaches and players point to today's game as an opportunity to build momentum for another bowl run next season. Rice last reached consecutive bowl games in the 1960 and 1961 seasons.
"We're trying to make it an every year thing," McHargue said of Rice and bowl trips. "I feel like this is huge for us, to build momentum for the program."
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said four players who have missed recent games with injuries should play today: defensive back Anthony LaCoste, center Austin Hayes, linebacker Josh Kusan and defensive back Connor Healy.
But defensive lineman Joe Champaign and offensive guard Davie Lore have not been cleared to play.
Rice coach David Bailiff said cornerback Bryce Callahan and tight end Luke Wilson have been cleared to play, but right guard Drew Carroll will miss the game. Andrew Reue, a redshirt freshman, will start today at right guard.
Roughly 2,000 walk-up seats remain available for purchase today at the stadium. Bowl officials anticipate a ticket distribution of 43,000, including 13,000 complimentary seats given to active and retired military personnel by corporate sponsors.
Air Force QB Connor Dietz, who graduated earlier this month, will be the lone Falcon to compete today as an officer (second lieutenant) rather than a cadet.
Asked if he would make teammates salute him in the huddle, Dietz smiled and said: "Maybe once or twice. We'll see how it's going."
Commander Hank Kim of the USS Fort Worth will sing today's national anthem.
Two Army jump teams, the Wings of Blue and the Silver Wings, will perform before the game, accompanied by Dana Bowman, a double amputee. The pregame will include the unfurling of a 1,500-square-foot American flag.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760