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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Florida Atlantic

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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The least you should know about Florida Atlantic...
2007 Record • Past Four Years
2007: 8-5 (6-1 Sun Belt; Champion)
2004-07: 24-24 (15-12 Sun Belt)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
(Unranked 2004-06): 118 • 101
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (8 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
It’s true his eyes are positioned too far down his face, but Rusty Smith might soon be destined to be richer than you’ll ever be: he’s 6’5", in the 220-230 range, and arguably didn’t have a bad game as a sophomore. By the last month of the season, he was on a tear: Smith completed over two-thirds of his passes in the last four games (one of them at Florida), for ten yards per attempt, with 12 TDs to 2 INTs., peaking with a 5-TD evisceration of Memphis in the bowl game. He led the SBC in efficiency, set a new record for yards, and is a runaway favorite to be all-conference again. As far as the Sun Belt is concerned, kid spits gold and cries $1.50 gasoline.
Words to Live By

A slogan like TO BELIEVE IS TO BE STRONG is inherently empty, since it places no restrictions on the nature of the belief. A false belief, for example, should subsequently lead to weakness. For a person who believes he’s weak, clearly that belief doesn’t foster strength. The conclusion is tenuous at best. But it’s worked for Howard "The Wizard" Schnellenberger, dating back to his championship days at Miami and ingraining itself so tightly in the fledgling FAU culture that Ho-Schnell guaranteed it would be inscribed somewhere on the forthcoming on-campus stadium. The designers of the virtual tour of "Innovation Village" didn’t include it, though, so I guess Owl fans will just have to close their eyes and believe: You’ve always had the power to build an on-campus stadium... just click you heels together three times and repeat after me...
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* According to Rivals.

What’s Changed. Expectations, mainly. Even by Sun Belt standards, FAU has dwelt in near-total obscurity its first three years in I-A football. To whatever extent possible, that shouldn’t be the case this year, the first time in the program’s young history it starts a season with anyone paying much attention. The Owls turned in as solid a campaign in ‘07 as any SBC team could expect: a conference championship, a win over a BCS conference team (even if it was Minnesota, taking a break from its one shot at recruiting south Florida to allow five touchdown passes), a legitimately close call with a ranked instate rival (South Florida), a year-end upset over the unanimous league favorite (Troy) and the first bowl win in school history. After finishing near the bottom of the national rankings at a skimpy 13 points per game in 2005 and 15 in 2006, FAU found its quarterback, Rusty Smith, and doubled its output to 31 points per game last year, the most substantial offensive turnaround in the country.

Every piece of that offense returns, including Smith, and you’ll have to search far and wide to find any set of Sun Belt forecasts that doesn’t put the Owls at the top. As recently as 2006, FAU was a near-unanimous choice for last place in the preseason, and never better than middle-of-the-pack –– which, historically, is generally where you want to be in this conference in the summer: since 2001, the consensus preseason favorite is only two for seven in actually capturing the title, and the eventual champion each of the last three years was picked fourth or lower off a losing season the previous season. The view is very different from the top.

What’s the Same. Personnel-wise, just about everything. Smith had the best single season by a quarterback in the league’s short history. Between D’Brickashaw Onyenegecha frontrunner DiIvory Edgecomb, 1,000-yard receiver Cortez Gent, leading rusher Charles Pierre –– the only running back named after an influential 19th Century French philosophe –– versatile, productive fullback William Rose and Jason Harmon, Chris Bonner, Lestar Jean and Conshario Johnson rounding out the depth at receiver, the core of FAU’s offense was responsible for 88 percent of the yards per scrimmage last year, with most of the rest returning in the form of lesser-used guys. The offensive line was almost suspiciously intact all season, only losing two starts to a player not in the regular five –– and that player, Kevin Miller, moves into the lineup full time this fall. Between them, the four returning starters all started all twelve games in ‘07 and with Miller combine for 97 starts over their career.

From all transgressions, from all snares, they save,
Towards the Path of Joy they guide my ways;
They are my servants, and I am their slave;
And all my soul, this living torch obeys.

– Charles Pierre
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This from an offense that was arguably one of the best the Sun Belt has produced –– it terms of yards and touchdowns, no passing attack has come close, and no SBC team prior to FAU and Troy last year had ever averaged 30 points per game. Given its humble beginnings, it might be easy to dismiss ‘07 as a fluke, destined to descend to somewhere nearer the mean. Maybe, but all indications by the end of the year were that Smith is well above that mark for this conference.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. New starting safety Greg Joseph won praise for ignoring his long-term health and demanding to go through full-contact drills with a torn tendon in his hand, but a gutsy safety on a team with very few question marks in the lineup is no match for the circus surrounding Brooke Hogan, who was lurking around practice, drawing bigger crowds than the basketball team and inducing –– nay! forcing –– middle-aged newspaper bloggers to shoot borderline inappropriate snapshots more suited for the shameless gossip circuit in her quixotic quest for a college that will accept her. Cleavage notwithstanding, Florida Atlantic said, "Thanks but no thanks," along with Florida State and Central Florida, all huge public schools that, judging from their enrollment, generally accept almost anyone with the bare [hur hur –– ed.] minimum qualifications. Hey, FAU’s got more than 20,000 coeds already, which is well over 40,000 tits. And none of them are surrounded at all times by a reality show camera crew. It won’t miss one more opportunity to oggle.

Also: speaking of cheesecake, you can never beat cheerleader fundraising calendars. At least then your desperate leering can go to a cause.

Florida Atlantic on You Tube. When you’re the best-dressed man in college football, every little thread has to be in place. :

No shame –– you gotta do what you gotta do. At least he didn’t get caught being knocked head over heels by one of his players. Again, I mean.

See Also: Rusty Smith tries out his French before the New Orleans Bowl. ... Ho-Schnell rouses the masses for the Owls’ game with South Florida last October. ... And for some idea of what he’s up against, a quick panorama of Lockhart Stadium in last year’s opener against Middle Tennessee.

The media at spring practice. Football team’s in the back, in case you were wondering.
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Best-Case: On paper, the Owls could be the best team the Sun Belt has fielded in eight years, a possibility most of the preseason magazines acknowledge (Phil Steele ranks FAU No. 40, definitely a new high where the SBC is concerned). Everybody’s writing off losses at Texas and at Michigan State, as they should, and I’m willing to say even the optimist should count another L somewhere along the way –– if not at must-be-better Minnesota, the most likely candidate, then to Troy or Middle Tennessee in the conference. If it sweeps the SBC schedule as expected and repeats in the New Orleans Bowl, this could be the Belt’s first double-digit winner.

Worst-Case: This league has a history of strange year-to-year flops (see above). Besides the three expected losses to far more talented BCS teams, FAU isn’t necessarily more athletic than UAB, either, its most forgiving non-conference test. An 0-4 start outside of the league would be disappointing but isn’t outrageous, and would leave the Owls in a precarious state with the two toughest SBC games (Troy and Middle Tennessee) at the front of the conference schedule. A start on the order of 1-5 means they’d have to recover very quickly to get back to .500 over the softer second half, but crushed dreams early could reduce this to a middle-of-the-pack outfit pretty quickly. In the Sun Belt, that’s about 5-7 overall.

Non-Binding Forecast: Bourbon Street or Bust. The Owls probably feel like there’s no reason they shouldn’t win ten games, and if they carry over the momentum from the end of last season, they will, and probably put a scare into Texas (which struggled with SBC also-ran Arkansas State to open last year) or Michigan State in the process. Smith’s start and potential project him as the biggest individual star the conference has produced, at the helm of possibly the most prolific offense. I’d expect a slow start in September, which is just par for the course against bigger schools, and running the table in this league has been very tough –– ask Troy, which was in the same frontrunner position last year and opened 6-0 before running into the Owls in the finale. Eight regular season wins would be a high mark for the school, and for the conference since 2003, and with all the firepower leaving Troy, FAU is the favorite by a mile to repeat as champion.