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December 30, 2008

Don't overlook the Texas Bowl quarterbacks

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

Contrary to popular belief, it was possible to find quality quarterbacks outside the Big 12 this season.

You just had to know where to look.


Rice (9-3)
vs. Western Michigan (9-3)

WHEN: 8 p.m. Dec. 30.
WHERE: Reliant Stadium, Houston.
TV: NFL Network (Fran Charles will do play-by-play, with Tom Waddle as the analyst).
THE LINE: Rice by 2.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Rice 3-3, Western Michigan 2-3.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Rice 109th, Western Michigan 86th.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team.
COACHES: Rice − David Bailiff (first bowl); Western Michigan − Bill Cubit (0-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: : If you like to see plenty of points and passing, this is the game for you. Rice's Chase Clement and Western Michigan's Tim Hiller have combined to throw for 7,339 yards and 75 touchdowns this season. This game also features two of the nation's top 10 receivers in Rice's Jarett Dillard (79 catches for 1,224 yards and 19 TDs) and Western Michigan's Jamarko Simmons (98-1,184-7). Simmons is 76 yards away from breaking his school's single-season record.
KEY STATS: Rice is ninth in the nation in turnover margin, while Western Michigan is tied for 76th in that category. This game doesn't figure to feature much punting, so the turnover battle could prove critical.
KEEP AN EYE ON: This is your last chance to see Rice's Dillard, one of the most productive wide receivers in college football history. Dillard owns NCAA records for career touchdown catches (59), games with a touchdown catch (37) and consecutive games with a touchdown catch (13). He leads the nation with 19 touchdown receptions this season and is the first player in NCAA history to catch at least 19 TD passes in two seasons. Clement and Dillard have connected on 50 touchdown passes, the most of any quarterback-receiver combination in NCAA history.
While every big-time conference aside from the Big 12 had a severe lack of consistency at the quarterback position, Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference featured plenty of outstanding passers who produced the kinds of shootouts that Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech fans enjoyed all season.

Many of the C-USA and MAC quarterbacks operated under the radar all year, but bowl season offers a pair of head-to-head matchups that should allow them to garner some overdue attention. Rice's Chase Clement faces Western Michigan's Tim Hiller in the Texas Bowl on Tuesday night in Houston, and Ball State's Nate Davis squares off with Tulsa's David Johnson in the Jan. 6 GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

"This league has kind of been known for its offense," Clement said of C-USA. "The last couple of years, you've seen games that were 45-40 or 49-42 high-scoring games with a lot of offense, especially on the West [Division] side. "It's known for teams that throw the ball quite a bit."

The MAC also fits that description.

C-USA has six quarterbacks ranked among the nation's top 20 players in total offense and has four ranked in the top 25 in passing efficiency. The MAC has five players in the top 25 in passing efficiency and three ranked in the top 20 in total offense. The ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big East and Pac-10 have a combined six quarterbacks in the top 25 in passing efficiency and only one (Illinois' Juice Williams) in the top 20 in total offense.

The poor defenses in the MAC and C-USA are at least partially responsible. Northern Illinois (16th) and Ball State (21st) were the only MAC schools ranked among the top 46 teams in scoring defense. C-USA didn't have any schools in the top 30 in that category.

But the leagues deserve credit for making stars out of quarterbacks who received scant attention from big-time programs. Although Hiller was contacted by a few Big Ten programs, his unorthodox delivery caused most big-time schools to shy away from him despite his ideal size (6 feet 5, 225 pounds).

"I had a little bit of an awkward release," he said. "I didn't have great mechanics. I spent a lot of time working on my motion. It was a long process."

Hiller has rewarded Western Michigan's faith in him by throwing for at least 3,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. He leads the MAC in attempts (480), completions (320), passing yards (3,527) and touchdown passes (34).

Clement has been even better. The lightly recruited fifth-year senior has thrown 41 touchdown passes and has rushed for 11 more scores while ranking third in the nation in total offense. He was named C-USA's MVP and owns league records for career touchdown passes (96) and total touchdowns (120).

"Early on, I thought, 'Why couldn't I have gotten a shot [at a bigger program],' " Clement said. "But that's not the way it worked out. I've gone to two bowls in the last three years. The last bowl Rice had been to was 45 years ago. To come here and be able to accomplish what we've accomplished is something that's really exciting. I don't need to worry about all that other stuff. This happened for a reason."

After Clement finishes his career in the Texas Bowl, he will have to prove skeptics wrong again. Rob Rang, the senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com, doesn't rank Clement as one of the top 10 senior quarterbacks in an extraordinarily weak draft class.

Where's he from?
Half of the nation's top 20 quarterbacks in passing efficiency play in non-"Big Six" conferences. Here's a look:
Rank, player, school
2. David Johnson, Tulsa
6. Chase Clement, Rice
8. Nate Davis, Ball State
10. Case Keenum, Houston
12. Max Hall, BYU
13. Kellen Moore, Boise State
17. Tim Hiller, Western Michigan
18. Brian Johnson, Utah
19. Adam DiMichele, Temple
20. Trevor Vittatoe, UTEP
(NOTE: All but DiMichele and Vittatoe led their teams to bowl appearances this season.)
Even though Rang doesn't project any senior quarterbacks as potential first- or second-picks Sam Houston State's Rhett Bomar is the No. 1 senior quarterback and a probable third-round selection Clement's 6-1 frame and reputation as a beneficiary of Rice's spread offense prevent him from being ranked higher.

"You see some zip on the ball and you see some touch deep, but you don't necessarily see a monster NFL arm," Rang said. "The biggest thing is his size and the fact he kind of has a low release anyway. Some guys are short, but because they have such a high release, they don't get many passes batted down. If he can go to one of these all-star games and develop the kind of relationship with a wide receiver in a couple of weeks that he has with [Jarett] Dillard, he can prove he's not just a product of the system."

The "system" label also is hampering Tulsa's Johnson, rated as the No. 8 senior quarterback prospect and a potential sixth-round pick by Rang despite ranking second in the nation in passing efficiency.

Quarterbacks from the MAC might have an easier time impressing pro scouts. Ben Roethlisberger starred at Miami of Ohio before winning a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh's Byron Leftwich and Miami's Chad Pennington played at Marshall before that school moved from the MAC to C-USA.

Rang said Davis could go in the second round and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour might get taken in the third round if they choose to turn pro, though Rang believes both would benefit from staying for their senior seasons. Rang said Hiller could get drafted as high as the middle rounds if he bypasses his senior season, though he also could improve his stock by staying in school one more year.

"The MAC has gotten to the point where they're right there with the so-called 'Big Six' conferences, at least in terms of scouting NFL prospects at quarterback," Rang said.

Who has the edge?

Rice run offense vs. Western Michigan run defense
Although Rice is known for its passing attack, the Owls also average 4.2 yards per carry. C.J. Ugokwe gained at least 100 yards in three of his last five games to finish the regular season with 755 yards on 150 carries. QB Chase Clement has run for 621 yards and 11 touchdowns on 142 attempts. Clement has run for at least one touchdown in five consecutive games. The Owls should find running room against a Western Michigan defense allowing 3.8 yards per carry.
Edge: Rice.

Rice pass offense vs. Western Michigan pass defense
The Broncos can only hope the long layoff has cooled Clement. In his past four games, Clement has thrown 17 touchdown passes and one interception. Even if the Broncos contain WR Jarett Dillard who has had only one 100-yard receiving game in his past five contests they also must find a way to contain TE James Casey, who has 104 catches for 1,217 yards and 12 touchdowns. That's too tough an assignment for a team that ranks 62nd in the nation in pass efficiency defense.
Edge: Rice.

Western Michigan run offense vs. Rice run defense
Brandon West has rushed for 970 yards and eight touchdowns, but 60 percent of his yards came in just four games. Although the Broncos rank 93rd in rushing offense, they actually have averaged 4.3 yards per carry. West could have a breakout performance against Rice, which ranks 103rd in the nation in run defense and has allowed 5.2 yards per attempt.
Edge: Western Michigan.

Western Michigan pass offense vs. Rice pass defense
QBTim Hiller struggled as the Broncos lost to Ball State in their regular-season finale, but that was his only bad game of the year. He has completed two-thirds of his passes with 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Keep in mind that Ball State leads the MAC and ranks 29th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Rice ranks 96th in the nation in that category.
Edge: Western Michigan.

Rice special teams vs. Western Michigan special teams
Rice K Clark Fangmeier is 5-of-9 on field-goal attempts and 1-of-4 from at least 40 yards out. Rice's Kyle Martens averages 38.6 yards per punt. Western Michigan's John Potter is 11-of-15 on field-goal attempts and 1-of-2 from at least 40 yards out, while Ben Armer averages 41.1 yards per punt. Rice is 77th and Western Michigan is tied for 96th in net punting. Western Michigan's Aaron Winchester is a dangerous kick returner.
Edge: Western Michigan.

Rice coaches vs. Western Michigan coaches
Rice's David Bailiff was named the Conference USA coach of the year after leading the Owls to a 9-3 record, but Western Michigan's Bill Cubit has done an equally good job while helping the Broncos also go 9-3. The two have different backgrounds Cubit is a former offensive coordinator and Bailiff was a defensive assistant but they have delivered similar results.
Edge: Even.

X-factor: Rice isn't actually playing on its home field, but Reliant Stadium is just a few miles from campus. That proximity assures the Owls will be playing in front of a partisan crowd. Playing close to home didn't help Central Michigan, Hawaii and North Carolina in their bowl games. Could it pay off for the Owls?

Rice will win if: The Owls haven't scored fewer than 35 points in any of their wins. They likely will have to score at least that many to win this one.

Western Michigan will win if: The Broncos need to hope that Hiller's performance against Ball State was an aberration. If Hiller throws for 300 yards and Western Michigan wins the turnover battle, the Broncos should win.

The picks
Mike Huguenin: Rice 40, Western Michigan 35
Steve Megargee: Rice 38, Western Michigan 34

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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