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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 106: Florida Atlantic

Joe Paterno is Penn State, seeing that he’s been serving in some capacity at the university since 1950 — meaning he’s been at Penn State about as long as Charlie Brown has been on the comics page. Howard Schnellenberger — or The Voice, as some have called him — hasn’t been at Florida Atlantic quite so long, nowhere near as long, in fact, but his impact on the program is in many ways comparable to the impact Paterno has had in Happy Valley. The university’s first director of football operations, Schnellenberger led the inaugural search for a head coach, and before Dick Cheney made it cool, searched under every rock and stone before eventually choosing himself as the best coach F.A.U. could find. Since 2001, he’s been the one and only coach in program history, leading the Owls to a conference title in 2007 and back-to-back bowl berths from 2007-8. Why the trip down memory lane? Because with a new stadium on the horizon, here’s guessing F.A.U. doesn’t go much further with a 77-year-old coach, opting instead to go younger — much, much younger. So this might be the last year for The Voice; open up one Saturday to turn on the Owls and pay your respects.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Boca Raton, Fla.

Nickname
Owls

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 97

2010 record
(4-8, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 97

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Florida
  • Sept. 10
    at Michigan St.
  • Sept. 17
    at Auburn
  • Oct. 1
    at La.-Lafayette
  • Oct. 8
    at North Texas
  • Oct. 15
    W.K.U.
  • Oct. 22
    M.T.S.U.
  • Nov. 5
    Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 12
    at F.I.U.
  • Nov. 19
    at Troy
  • Nov. 26
    U.A.B.
  • Dec. 3
    La.-Monroe

Last year’s prediction

It’s going to be a work in progress on both sides of the ball for F.A.U. in 2010. It’s hard to avoid the warning signs. The offense has two sure things: Van Camp and Morris; maybe three sure things if I include Housler at tight end. The rest of the receiver corps is unknown and the offensive line, as covered at length, is a major question mark. The defense, with its nine returning starters, will be this team’s security blanket. This is not a good thing, as the Owls have struggled defensively for years, even when the team was landing consecutive bowl trips from 2007-8. I like F.A.U., I appreciate the job the program has done landing immediate success on the F.B.S. level, but this looks a rough year for the Owls. If Schnellenberger leads this team to bowl play, it would rank among the finest coaching jobs of his illustrious career.

2010 recap

In a nutshell It wasn’t really that ugly, but it was disappointing. Above all else, last fall’s slide to 4-8 ended Florida Atlantic’s climb up the Sun Belt; even in 2009, when the Owls finished below .500, Schnellenberger led his team to five wins in conference play. There was far less competitiveness in last year’s team, which won a game outside of the Sun Belt but couldn’t get to that sixth win even as the conference as whole failed to put together more than three teams worthy of bowl consideration. So that’s the bottom line, sadly. In terms of the on-field product, the Owls were poor defensively and awful offensively, with the former largely expected and the latter a serious disappointment — that word again. Think the Owls can turn it around in 2011? It’s going to take substantial improvement on both sides of the ball.

High point A three-game winning streak from Oct. 30—Nov. 13. Included in that trio was a victory over rival F.I.U., which proved that it’s official: the Owls own the Golden Panthers, even when the latter owns the Sun Belt at large.

Low point Let’s see. The Owls lost to North Texas at home, so that’s a winner. Also of note: a 37-16 loss at Arkansas State; that was A.S.U.’s season-high for points.

Tidbit Finally. It took some time and several frustrating delays, but Florida Atlantic is on track to unveil its new on-campus stadium in 2011. The stadium currently carries the unimaginative title of “FAU Football Stadium,” though that won’t last forever, I assume. In fact, naming rights are currently available, so get out your checkbook. There have been so many delays since the stadium was first proposed that in my mind, it’s a good thing F.A.U. doesn’t open its home schedule until Oct. 15. Better safe than sorry. But seriously, the on-campus stadium is a huge upgrade for the program. The Owls had been playing their games at nearby — somewhat nearby — Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, sharing the field with two local high school programs and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League.

Former players in the N.F.L.

3 WR Jason Harmon (Jacksonville), TE Rob Housler (Arizona), QB Rusty Smith (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

People raised in Spencer County, Ind.
1. Abraham Lincoln.
2. J. Clarence Karcher.
3. Howard Schnellenberger.
4. Bill Peet.
5. Florence Henderson.

Coaching

Howard Schnellenberger (Kentucky ‘56), the first and only head coach in F.A.U. history. Schnellenberger, 57-63 with the Owls, had been out of football for three years when he was approached by F.A.U. in 1998 with a peculiar opportunity: build a football program from the ground up. The choice seemed odd at the time. Schnellenberger was 64 when hired, seemingly too old to take on such an endeavor, and hadn’t stalked the sidelines since 1995. But Schnellenberger’s hiring has been an inspired decision, as the Owls have burst onto the scene as one of the nation’s up-and-coming programs. After shocking many with an 8-5 2007 season, which culminated in the school’s first bowl appearance and victory, Schnellenberger again led F.A.U. to postseason play in 2008. And again the Owls won, giving Schnellenberger a perfect 6-0 career mark in bowl games. Though F.A.U. slipped to 5-7 in 2009, it posted a winning record in Sun Belt play for the fourth straight season, staying home during bowl play only due to its 0-4 mark against non-conference competition. Florida Atlantic’s climb from a member of the F.C.S. (2001-5) to back-to-back bowl participant in 2007-8 was rapid, but perhaps you should have seen it coming: Schnellenberger is the father of the Miami (Fla.) program, leading the Hurricanes to their first national title in 1983 and a 41-16 record over all from 1979-1983. Schnellenberger also has a thing for rebuilding jobs; in addition to his time at F.A.U. and Miami – the Hurricanes had two winning seasons in the decade prior to his arrival – Schnellenberger took over a dismal Louisville program in 1985 and tried his hand at resurrecting Oklahoma in 1995 before being fired after one season. Now entering the twilight of his career, Schnellenberger is writing a fitting coda to a legendary and unorthodox coaching career.

Players to watch

No one likes to point fingers, unless we’re talking about the N.F.L., in which case point away — the Redskins are a laughingstock, by the way, and should not be followed by anyone at any time if that person has the option. Yet last season’s struggles on offense can be tied back to one group: the offensive line. Inexperience was the story heading into last season, when the Owls brought back only one player with solid game experience, and the line is thoroughly to blame for the significant decline F.A.U. suffered on the offensive side of the ball. If there is going to be an improvement, the line must rally into form. Cross your fingers.

Here’s the good news: the line will be better. It will be more experienced, which will translate to better continuity and overall better performance, which should begin to shake this offense out of the doldrums. All five of last season’s starters return: left tackle Samuel McRoy, left guard Andy Czuprynski, center Jimmy Colley, right guard Chris Newbold and right tackle Max Karrick. This is a very good thing. Helping matters is the return of center Jordan Sessa, who should jump Colley and move into the starting lineup. If you recall, the Owls had three centers go down to injury over a very short time last season; Sessa improves the line’s depth.

Alfred Morris approves. His numbers took a big hit in 2010, when he rushed for 928 yards after leading the Sun Belt with 1,382 yards in 2009. Look no further than the line as reason for that decrease; the holes simply weren’t there for Morris, though he certainly made the most of his limited running room. Even if the line doesn’t come together, Morris is the centerpiece of this offense — the offense will run through him, but he’ll need help up front.

The receiving corps was decimated by graduation. The Owls lost their three leading receivers — Lester Jean, Rob Housler and Avery Holley — and don’t return one player who made more than 12 grabs a year ago. It’s not all bad news, however: Willie Floyd will probably be able to play in 2011, seeing that the N.C.A.A. granted him a preliminary waiver for an extra year of eligibility — he should be eligible full-time by September. A former running back, Floyd will factor heavily into the mix. As will DeAndre Richardson (12 catches for 114 yards) and tight ends like Darian Williams and Nexon Dorvilus, who will attempt to replace Housler’s lost production.

You know what else a healthy running game does? It keeps the defense off the field, which will help matters immensely. Not that defense was as bad as last year’s numbers indicated; it wasn’t good by any stretch, but it was on the field far too often, leading to fatigue and worsening results. Change is on the horizon for this defense, which will switch to a3-4 in an effort to combat the spread offenses on the schedule. Again, cross your fingers.

The switch will create a more aggressive defense while playing to F.A.U.’s linebackers, which despite losing two leading tacklers remains one of the deeper units on the team. This is partly thanks to Randell Johnson’s healthy return from an ugly back injury suffered midway through last season. Johnson will work on the strong side, putting him in place to factor heavily in the run defense. It’s Cory Henry on the weak side, which is intriguing: Henry showed an ability to get to the quarterback last fall, leading the team with five sacks, and he should be in position to get pressure in the backfield on the weak side. Davis Hinds and Yourhighness Morgan — what a name — will start in the middle.

I do worry somewhat about how F.A.U. will play the run this new alignment, which should do better against quicker but fall under an onslaught on the ground against bigger, more physical opponents. The onus therefore falls on the three-man front to stand their ground — on nose tackle Jimmy Jean, most notably. Or Jarvis Givens, for that matter; the pair split snaps at tackle last fall and may continue to do so on the nose in 2011. Kevin Cyrille (32 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2.0 sacks) is a definite starter at end, while Andrew Stryffeler and Jamere Johnson fight it out to start on the opposite side. Stryffeler, a sophomore, is a prospect to watch,

It’s going to be strange to look at the F.A.U. secondary and not see Tarvoris Hill and Tavious Polo starting at cornerback. The pair of multiple-year starters were never flashy but did get the job done, by and large, and the pass defense was not to blame for Florida Atlantic’s defensive failures in 2010. So that pair is gone, taking with them 66 career starts, and the Owls begin to start over at cornerback.

It makes sense that one replacement will be Keith Reaser, who has started some games in the past. Reaser, a sophomore, will be joined in the starting lineup by another second-year player in Treon Howard, who played behind Hill in 2010. More than anything, the secondary needs the services of a healthy Marcus Bartels at safety. He missed the spring after shoulder surgery, but should be ready by the fall. Bartels played free safety last fall (104 tackles, 2 interceptions) but can also play the strong spot, increasing his value. Demetrius Williams will be at strong safety if Bartels remains at his old position.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback The competition is far from over, and will likely not be decided until shortly before the season opener. Not to say there isn’t a favorite: Graham Wilbert outplayed David Kool during the spring — statistically, at least — and will enter August camp atop the depth chart. He’ll still need to maintain his edge during fall camp, as Kool is not so far out of the race as to be a non-factor; he could certainly push Wilbert, even leapfrog Wilbert, should he pick up his game and Wilbert take a step back. As at wide receiver, however, it’s important to note the large drop-off in terms of experience at the position. Jeff Van Camp didn’t have the senior season he hoped for, nor the year some expected, but at least he entered 2010 with some snaps under his belt. Wilbert and Kool combined to make seven attempts in 2010, completing as many to the other team, one, as they did to their own teammates.

Game(s) to watch

The season will be over before it really begins, at least when it comes to Florida Atlantic’s bowl hopes. Welcome to 2011: at Florida, Michigan State and Auburn to open the year. Ouch. If F.A.U. does make noise, it will be in Sun Belt play, as it has done in the past.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The schedule is absolutely filthy. The Owls will start 0-3, with the only question being whether they can get within 21 points of one of those three B.C.S. conference powers. From there, the Owls can hang their hats on a three-game stretch at home in October and early November, but any chance at making a run towards a conference title suffers a fatal blow thanks to road trips to both Troy and rival Florida International. Here’s the big story in 2011: while the rest of the Sun Belt, by and large, is improving, F.A.U. is either treading water or moving backwards. It really depends on your point of view, and your answer should dictate how you feel about the program’s immediate future. If you do think that F.A.U. needs a jolt, both on the sidelines and on the recruiting trail, a changing of the guard sounds appealing; if you think this quick slide towards the bottom of the Sun Belt is merely a speed bump, not a trend, then you likely think that F.A.U. could return to bowl play in 2012 with the coaching staff intact. That’s really not the point: the point is that regardless of the program’s future, this year will be a struggle — thanks to some youth, a lack of depth and inexperience at some very key positions.

Dream season Schnellenberger bows out in fine fashion, finishing his coaching career with a most unexpected Sun Belt championship.

Nightmare season The schedule, the youth and the lack of depth define a 2-10 season, the worst finish in program history.

In case you were wondering

Where do Florida Atlantic fans congregate? Florida Atlantic might be a young program, but fans have two great independent options to choose from in The Owl’s Nest and F.A.U. Owl Access, each of which alternates between football coverage in the fall and baseball chatter in the spring. Of course, any discussion of the best places to find Florida Atlantic football coverage begins and ends with Ted Hutton’s F.A.U. blog on the Web site of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Completely indispensable.

Word Count

Through 15 teams 39,150.

Up Next

Who is No. 105? The namesake of tomorrow’s university suffered death by chloroform in one of the most sensational murders of the early 20th century.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    William Marsh Rice University. He bequeathed his entire fortune to the school in his will and his murder was the result of someone who wanted the bequest for themself.

  2. DaUUU!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    What Howard Schnellenberger did for Miami was incredible. He took a program that was in desperate need for some type of spark and transformed it into a powerhouse. I was hoping he could have done the same for FAU. He’s a great coach and would love to see him go out on top, because well he deserves it.

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