Vanderbilt, Rice doing it their way

September, 10, 2008
9/10/08
8:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Battle of the Brains?

Yep, that's probably going to be the billing anytime Rice and Vanderbilt play a football game. They're two of the finest academic institutions in the country. In fact, Rice was 17th and Vanderbilt tied for 18th in the latest ranking of American universities by U.S. News & World Report.

The similarities are endless. They both are private schools. They both are extremely selective about who they admit as undergraduate students. They both cost a fortune to attend ... and they both have historically stunk it up pretty good on the football field.

That is, until now.

They're both 2-0 going into Saturday's game at Vanderbilt Stadium, and both are coming off eye-opening victories. Rice scored 29 points in the fourth quarter to pull off an amazing 42-35 comeback win over Memphis last Saturday. Vanderbilt knocked off then No. 24-ranked South Carolina last Thursday for its first win over a nationally ranked team at home since 1992.

Vanderbilt running back Jared Hawkins, who grew up in Spring, Texas, was recruited by Rice. He said nothing changes just because both schools take SAT scores as seriously as they do 40-yard dash times.

"Every game you play is about pride. I don't care who it's against or what the academics are like," said Hawkins, who had a career-high 84 yards rushing in the win over South Carolina and put the game away with several bruising runs in the fourth quarter. "We're not going into this game any differently. We want to make sure we do what it takes to continue what we've started."

The last time the Commodores were 3-0 was the 2005 season, Jay Cutler's senior season. They started 4-0 that year, only to lose their next six. They've suffered through 25 straight losing seasons and haven't been to a bowl game since 1982.

The last time the Owls were 3-0 was 1953 when Jess Neely was on his way to becoming the winningest coach in Rice history. Neely, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, played at Vanderbilt and later returned to his alma mater in 1967 as athletic director. The street that runs alongside Vanderbilt Stadium bears his name.

Rice, now a member of Conference USA, has finished with a winning record four times in the last 12 seasons. The most recent was 2006 when the Owls were 7-6, including a loss to Troy in the New Orleans Bowl. That was their first bowl appearance in 45 years.

Rice coach David Bailiff said the rigid academic standards that are inherent at both schools are what make his job so special.

"To me, that's not a challenge. That's wonderful," Bailiff said. "You can take 75 percent of the recruits in the country and they can't come to Rice, and they probably can't go to Vanderbilt. It lets you narrow your focus on the ones that are great fits. I really think that's a positive, and that's how we approach it here. We're going to get guys that are great fits academically and athletically.

"If you do your homework, you're out there [on the field]. That's why recruiting is going so well for us, because of our approach. I'll bet you that's what Bobby [Johnson] is doing, too. They had seven guys last year from Vanderbilt that were either drafted or went into the NFL. That hasn't happened [by accident]. It's happening because he's embraced Vanderbilt. I think that's how you have to do it. You can't sit around and worry about it. You have to improve on what you have."

Along those same lines, Hawkins said football was only a small part of why he chose Vanderbilt.

"When I was getting recruited, I was concentrating more on down the road ... after football was over," Hawkins said. "Vanderbilt was going to set me up to be in the best position after I'm done with football. But there's no reason we can't win here, either. We want to turn this program around.

"Guys are excited, excited to see what the next week brings, what the next game brings. They're running around and talking about it and can't wait to get back out there every day. We want this to be the best team to ever come through Vanderbilt."

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