CUSA Football Preview: #10 Florida Atlantic Owls

Shane Bearden, Publisher
Inside Hilltopper Sports
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The Promotion

FAU blew the roof off the coverage meter when they hired Lane Kiffin as their new head coach this past December. National sports writers are suddenly giving FAU much more attention. Not that the Owls weren't getting talked about before. It's just that the conversations pre-Kiffin mostly consisted of weekly showings in ESPN's bottom 10 rankings.

The Owls parted ways with head coach Charlie Partridge after 3 straight seasons of 3-9. Meanwhile, FAU will become Kiffin's 4th head coaching destination, after stints with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Vols, and USC Trojans. Kiffin was 7-6 in his lone season with the Vols, while going 8-5 and 10-2 respectively in his first 2 seasons at USC. His last season and a half saw only a 7-6 campaign in 2012 with a miserable bowl appearance. The Trojans than started the 2013 season at 3-2 and Kiffin was famously fired on the airport tarmac by USC AD Pat Haden at 3:00am after a loss to Arizona St.

Kiffin does bring immediate star power to a program that has been struggling though. I have never quite understood the national media's salivation over Kiffin. As he has been a fairly mediocre head coach over the years.

Of course one of the most viral Kiffin moments came this past season when a certain Conference USA team (cough, WKU, cough) went to Tuscaloosa and scored a late touchdown after a Crimson Tide fumble that led to the now infamous Saban "ass-chewing."

Not long after that, it started looking like this would be the last season in Tuscaloosa for Kiffin. In a book written by Senior Bowl executive Phil Savage, Savage reveals what started the whole argument. Kiffin explained the fumble in the headset by saying "dumb players make dumb plays." At which point, Saban went off on Kiffin. "No," Saban said, "dumb offensive coordinators call dumb plays."

Hopefully the splashy promotion hire pays off for the Owls. It helps to build up the conference if all the teams get stronger. However, Kiffin has not been a head coach in a non P5 league. He will have to make due with a lot let resources than he is used to.

2016 Recap

Record: 3-9

Wins: Southern Illinois, Rice, UTEP

Losses: Miami (FL), Kansas St, Ball St, FIU, Charlotte, Marshall, WKU, ODU, MTSU

Notes: It was a bad start to the season when FAU barely escaped FCS foe Southern Illinois 38-30 in the season opener. The Salukis, who finished 4-7, actually outgained the Owls on offense by 78 yards.

Both sides of the ball struggled for most of the season for the Owls. The offense finally started to get some momentum late in the season. The defense, however, continued to be absolutely dismal all of 2016.

2017 Preview

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Offense:

The Owls offense improved as the season went on in 2016 thanks in large part to then freshman running back Devin Singletary. Singletary overtook Gregory Howell Jr in the rotation and helped more than double the scoring output for the Owls over their final 4 games of the season. Despite losing the final two games of the season to Old Dominion and MTSU, the Owls managed to put up 80 combined points. While the defense gave up 119 combined points to keep FAU out of the win column in either game.

The Kiffin controversy has already begun in Boca Raton with the hire of former Baylor offensive coordinator Kendall Briles. Briles is of course the son of former Baylor head coach Art Briles, and comes to FAU despite the stain of the sexual assault scandal that overtook the football program at Baylor. A lot of coaches now days like to have a fast paced offence. Briles offensive style is to go at turbo speed. That requires teams to have a lot of depth and weapons to choose from. Something FAU has only a few of as it currently stands.

Junior QB Jason Driskel began to improve late in the season as well when he had a running game that was able to take pressure off of the passing game. Driskel who completed 61.2% of his passes while throwing for 2,415 with 9 touchdowns and 11 interceptions may not be able to hold on to his job as the starting signal caller. Florida State transfer De'Andre Johnson, who was dismissed from the Seminoles in 2015 for punching a woman, is expected to challenge for the starting role.

Almost the entire FAU receiving corp returns for 2017, aside from tight end Tyler Cameron, including senior Kalib Woods who accounted for 934 receiving yards in 2016 despite only 1 touchdown. Kalib may have some competition of his own though. Kiffin has managed to bring in a pretty good haul of recruits during the spring and summer. One time 4-star Florida signee D'Anfernee McGriff along with JUCO signee and former Texas receiver DeAndre McNeal look to add some competition to the receiving corp. You can also add in incoming freshman receivers Jordan Merrell and Willie Wright as guys who will be looking to unseat the incumbents.

The Owls started 10 different lineman in 2016. This season the Owls return 8 lineman who have starting experience under their belt. A decent blocking offensive line is one of the biggest indicators of a good offensive team. If the returning players can capitalize on the experience they earned last season. They could potentially be one of the best units in the conference. Add in JUCO signee Joey Palmer to the mix as well.

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Defense:

Line-backer Azeez Al-Shaair led the FAU defense with 113 tackles in 2016. A mark good enough for 4th best in the conference. Al-Shaair was also 2nd on the team with 12 tackles for a loss to go along with 2 sacks and an interception he returned 30 yards for a touchdown. Al-Shaair was about it for the FAU defense though. He was the only linebacker to play in all 12 games. The defensive front was bad, the line backing core was banged up, and the secondary was awful. The Owls ranked #124 out of 128 FBS teams in total defense. Giving up 513.8 yards per game to opposing offenses. What doesn't bode well for the Owls is that Al-Shaair missed the spring because he underwent shoulder surgery to repair an injury that bothered him much of the 2016 season.

As bad as the secondary was for the Owls, all the blame can't be put on them. The defensive front lacked much penetration and struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. This made the secondaries job awfully hard by having to defend receivers for longer periods of time.

Kiffin recognized this weakness and wasted no time in recruiting JUCO help for the defense. Defensive ends Ernest Bagner and Tim Bonner, safety Jovon Burriss, and linebacker Carson Lydon are all expected to step up this season. This doesn't take into account the 5 freshman defenders that also signed with the Owls. While the JUCO guys probably have a better chance of earning minutes right away, it is entirely possible that a few of the freshman could see significant playing time with plenty of competition to go around before the season starts.

The secondary and linebacker core were loaded with sophomores last season. So while they were bad in 2016, a lot of experience is returning for this season. Including senior defensive back Raekwon Williams, who accounted for 40 tackles to go along with 9 pass break-ups and an interception.

New defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin, brother of head coach Lane Kiffin, joins his brother after serving as the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator for defense at Ole Miss from 2011-2016. No one is sure exactly what type of defensive identity the team will adopt under Kiffin. However, there is really only room for improvement at this point.

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Special Teams:

An actual strength for the Owls was special teams. Kicker Greg Joseph has a big enough leg that 76% of his kick offs went for a touchback in 2016. Joseph made ten of fourteen FG attempts in 2016 including four of five from 40+ yards.

Kerrith Whyte is back for returns duty. He was solid in 2016 averaging 25.62 yard per kick off return.

The Owls will have to find someone to replace punter Dalton Schomp though.

Summary:

Kiffin will get the press win or lose, but does he have the pieces to win this year at FAU. It is hard to say with so many returning players who were recruited to play a different system and style. Whenever there is a coaching change there will always be unknowns. Even more so when a coaching change happens as a result of losing rather then a coach moving on to another head coaching gig. Kiffin has had mixed results as a head coach and has only done so at the P5 level. Kiffin may have soaked up all the information he could the last couple of seasons with Nick Saban in Alabama. Soaking up information and translating it to your own program are two different things however. Kiffin has to show that a leopard can in deed change his spots. I think the Owls will take a bit of a step forward this season if nothing else from the benefit of good recruiting in the spring. The defense still has a lot to prove before that step forward will start to show up in the win column though.

Schedule & Prediction:

Sept. 1 vs Navy

Sept. 9 @ Wisconsin

Sept. 16 vs Bethune-Cookman

Sept. 23 @ Buffalo

Sept. 30 vs Middle Tennessee

Oct. 7 @ Old Dominion

Oct. 21 vs North Texas

Oct. 28 @ WKU

Nov. 3 vs Marshall

Nov. 11 @ La Tech

Nov. 18 vs Florida International

Nov. 25 @ Charlotte

Record: 4-8

Projected Wins: Bethune-Cookman, Buffalo, Marshall, MTSU

Projected Losses: Navy, Wisconsin, Old Dominion, North Texas, WKU, La Tech, FIU, Charlotte

Previous Rankings:

#11 UAB Blazers

#12 Rice Owls

#13 UTEP Miners

#14 Charlotte 49ers

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