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Rice linebacker Marcus Rucker tours the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans during a bus ride through the area. Rice will play Troy in the New Orleans Bowl tonight at 7. ESPN2 will broadcast the game.
AP photo by Sharon Steinmann
Rice linebacker Marcus Rucker tours the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans during a bus ride through the area. Rice will play Troy in the New Orleans Bowl tonight at 7. ESPN2 will broadcast the game.

Troy continues D-I climb with trip to New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Six years after moving up to Division I-A status and three years after joining the Sun Belt Conference, Troy will be playing in its second bowl game tonight — the New Orleans Bowl.

That's one more bowl than Rice, the Trojans' opponent, has made in the past 45 years.

"We weren't totally unknowns," said Troy President Jack Hawkins, who started the move from Division II to I-AA and ultimately I-A when he assumed office in 1989. "But we knew we wouldn't fully mature as a university until we made that final step to I-A."

Troy may seem an unlikely candidate for big-time football. But the Trojans have made it seem easy.

Troy has been the Sun Belt's attendance leader the past three years, averaging 20,810 this season.

"The folks at Troy have tapped into the incredible passion for football in Alabama," Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters said. "And Troy is a school that has had success at every step along the way. That passion has been healthy for our league. It's made them realize that this is a program that's determined not to be average for very long."

This season the Trojans (7-5), rebounded from a 1-4 start to win six of seven and capture their first Sun Belt title.

The Trojans home games are in the 30,000-seat Movie Gallery Veterans Stadium, one of the few college football facilities in the country with a corporate title. In addition to helping fund the facility, which includes 27 skyboxes and other amenities, Movie Gallery, headquartered in Dothan, an hour south of the school's main campus, underwrote the Trojans' 2004 appearance in the now-defunct Silicon Valley Classic.

Rice, meanwhile, is trying to move back to I-A form.

The Rice football program survived a review of its Division I status in 2004. But fans are still few. Average attendance in 2005 was 10,057 at Rice Stadium, a 70,000-seat structure.

Less than a year after being hired to turn around Rice's struggling football program, coach Todd Graham led the Owls to just their fourth winning season since 1993. Now, he's taking his team to its first bowl in 45 years. Along the way Graham also ordered new uniforms and helped raise $5 million to outfit Rice Stadium with a new field and scoreboard.

The Owls (7-5) are hoping for their first postseason win since 1954 after shaking off a rough start. Rice opened the season with four straight losses, but went on to win its final six games and earn its first bowl berth since 1961.

Making the rebound more impressive is that it follows a 1-10 finish last year. "Right now we're playing our best football," Graham said. "This is a team that persevered and suffered through a brutal first half of the year."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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