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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. 97: Florida Atlantic

A rendering of F.A.U.'s new stadium, which was supposed to open in 2010. Supposed to.

Florida Atlantic has accomplished quite a bit in its first decade of college football. It helped that the university was able to call out of retirement Howard Schnellenberger, the grandfather of football in south Florida, to be the face of the program. Ten years later: Schnellenberger’s still around, the Owls have won at least seven games in a season four times and have reached bowl play twice, winning both tries. Who is the next Florida school to join the Sunshine State’s power triumvirate of Florida State, Miami and Florida? Is it U.C.F.? South Florida? It very well might be Florida Atlantic.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Boca Raton, Fla.

Nickname
Owls

Returning starters
12 (3 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 77

2009 record
(5-7, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 87

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at U.A.B.
  • Sept. 11
    Michigan State (in Detroit)
  • Sept. 25
    North Texas
  • Oct. 2
    at U.S.F.
  • Oct. 9
    at La.-Monroe
  • Oct. 23
    at Arkansas St.
  • Oct. 30
    F.I.U.
  • Nov. 6
    at W.K.U.
  • Nov. 13
    La.-Lafayette
  • Nov. 20
    at Texas
  • Nov. 27
    at Middle Tennessee
  • Dec. 4
    Troy

Last year’s prediction

I’m most interested in seeing how the Owls fare early on, as it will be important for this team to avoid another 1-5 start. I think very highly of this offense, and returning to the top of the Sun Belt is not out of the question. The potential is there for eight wins, but with this defense, seven wins is the more logical pick.

2009 recap

In a nutshell For the second straight season, a slow start sent Florida Atlantic scrambling in conference play to reach bowl eligibility. However, unlike in 2008, when wins in five of its last six pushed them to 6-6, the Owls were unable to put together a much-needed extended winning streak down the stretch. And so ends the program’s two-year bowl streak – though that remains an incredible feat for a program that only joined the F.B.S. in 2005. The defense can be blame for the losing record, as F.A.U. allowed 33.8 points and 220.6 yards rushing per game, the latter ranking 112th nationally.

High point Florida Atlantic had its wins over the usual suspects – North Texas and Western Kentucky – but also scored impressive road wins over Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida International. Again, it was not the team’s performance in conference play that prevented it from reaching bowl play; the Owls simply struggle against non-conference opposition.

Low point The Owls played Middle Tennessee State tight, actually leading by a touchdown in the fourth quarter before falling, but were wholly over-matched in a 47-21 loss at Troy, the conference champion. The loss, which eliminated F.A.U. from bowl eligibility, gave the Owls six defeats in seven tries against Troy.

Tidbit Take note of the picture at the top of the preview. As noted, it is a rendering of the program’s potential new stadium, which was supposed to — again, supposed to — open in time for this coming season. The stadium is not, of course, and the new due date is now mid-October of 2011 — at the earliest. The stadium’s christening was scheduled to be this year’s tussle with Michigan State, a game that has now been moved to Ford Field in Detroit. If I had to guess, as I really can’t get a clear picture on why construction of the stadium is so behind schedule, I’d say the recent economic downturn is to blame for the late unveiling. As you can see, I’m not very wise in matters outside of college football; there are economic reporters here at The Times, but I’m too sheepish to ask them how F.A.U. has been affected by our nation’s economic struggles.

Former players in the N.F.L.

3 TE Jason Harmon (Jacksonville), RB William Rose (Tennessee), QB Rusty Smith (Tennessee).

Arbitrary top five list

Best teams in Miami (Fla.) history
1. 2001.
2. 1983.
3. 1987.
4. 2000.
5. 1991.

Coaching

Howard Schnellenberger (Kentucky ‘56), the first and only head coach in F.A.U. history and the 2007 Sun Belt coach of the year. Schnellenberger, 53-55 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 last fall, 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.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Schnellenberger has been a part of six championships, four on the college level. As Bear Bryant’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, Schnellenberger helped lead the Crimson Tide to national championships in 1961 and 1964-65. Of course, he is most famous for leading Miami (Fla.) to the 1983 national championship. Schnellenberger also won a pair of Super Bowl titles with Miami Dolphins; he was the offensive coordinator during Miami’s perfect 1972 season. Speaking of six, he also holds the F.B.S. record for bowl victories, six, without a loss.

Players to watch

Wide receiver is a major issue for the Owls. Gone are Lester Jean, Chris Bonner and Cortez Gent at receiver; also gone is talented tight end Jason Harmon, who paced the Owls with 48 receptions for 649 yards and 6 scores. Pickings are slim as F.A.U. wrapped up the spring, though the top line is not in terrible shape. The real issue is depth. Senior Lester Jean (38 grabs for 501 yards last fall) becomes the lead receiver, with fellow senior Avery Holley (22 for 224) also in the mix for a starting role. One player who impressed throughout the spring was redshirt freshman DeAndre Rice, who showed an ability to make plays in traffic — a trait not shared by many of the receivers on the roster. In good news, F.A.U. will welcome back tight end Rob Housler, who missed all of last season due to injury. In 2008, Housler made 32 receptions for 519 yards, a 16.2 yards per catch average. He can fill Harmon’s shoes very ably.

The Owls will fill the quarterback spot left vacated by multiple-year starter Rusty Smith with fifth-year senior Jeff Van Camp, who stepped into the starting lineup for the final five games of 2009. He actually compiled a winning record as the starter — going 3-2 — while throwing for 1,372 yards with 12 touchdowns against only two interceptions. Van Camp might not have prototypical arm strength, but that’s fine; neither did Smith. I don’t think the Owls will suffer too much of a letdown under center, especially since Van Camp was able to earn valuable experience over the second half of his junior season.

The star of the offense will be junior running back Alfred Morris, especially given the issues at wide receiver. His performance in 2009 was unquestionably the finest season by a back in school history: 1,392 yards rushing — a school record, and the 13th-best total in the F.B.S. — and 11 touchdowns. His role will become even greater in 2010, though with the question marks around him, Morris might struggle replicating last year’s totals. His backfield mate, sophomore Xavier Stinson, will help open holes for the all-Sun Belt running back. F.A.U. has done a very good job getting its fullbacks involved in the offense, as departed starter Willie Rose indicated last fall.

It’s somewhat frightening to think that the strength of this team is its defense, which was, as mentioned earlier, one of the worst in the country in 2009. The defense was especially weak against the run; new coordinator Kurt Van Valkenburgh, previously the F.A.U. linebackers coach, will have his hands full. When it comes to the run defense, it will help F.A.U. to have a good amount of depth on the interior of the defensive line, where senior Dino Cox and junior Jarvis Givens currently hold the top spots. Sophomore Jimmy Jean and senior Mauricio Riqeur are the top reserves. Depth also exists at end, where Kevin Cyrille and Jamere Johnson, both juniors, are the likely starters; senior Daniel Joseph, the leading contributor off the bench, is a former starter. The performance of the entire line might hinge on Cyrille, who has shown flashes of solid play (a team-best 11 tackles for loss and 3 sacks last fall) but has yet to reach his full potential.

The Owls lost starter Edward Bradwell on the weak side, but the linebacker corps return enough talent to expect an improvement over its 2009 performance — which was not good. Malik Eugene will return on the strong side after making 40 stops a year ago, though depth on the strong side would improve if sophomore Yourhighness Morgan can recover from the troubling concussion suffered last season. Senior Michael Lockley (97 stops, 7.5 for loss) is back at middle linebacker, with sophomore David Hinds again holding a secondary role. As one would think, Bradwell’s departure leaves a hole on the weak side; the Owls will attempt to fill his spot with previously little-used sophomore Alex Pattee.

The secondary is the most experienced group on the team, thanks to its three returning starters. One sign that the Countdown is feeling its years: for the third time, I’m touting cornerback Tavious Polo as a potential all-conference performer. At this point, I might still be giving Polo credit for his fabulous freshman campaign, when he burst on the scene with seven interceptions. He’s made only a pair of picks over the last two years, failing to capitalize upon his sizable physical gifts. Regardless, Polo has the ability to be the finest cornerback in the Sun Belt, and is the closest thing to a shut-down cornerback on this roster.

Junior strong safety Marcus Bartels, a former walk-on, was the most pleasant surprise on the F.A.U. roster in 2009: a team-best 112 stops (5 for loss) and an interception, totals reached after not accounting for a single tally in any statistical category over his first two seasons with the program. His ascension into the starting lineup can be attributed to hard work and a good amount of physical ability; it can also be attributed to the mediocre recruiting job F.A.U. has done on defense, which granted Bartels the opportunity to break into the starting rotation. Tavoris Hill and Ed Alexander, both seniors, will again start at cornerback and free safety, respectively. F.A.U. hopes Hill, a multiple-year starter, will remain healthy; he missed three games due to injury a year ago. Alexander concluded his junior season with 66 tackles, though one would hope he’d do a better job forcing turnovers.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line Which position is a bigger question mark: wide receiver or offensive line? Believe it or not, the line is in worse shape as F.A.U. entered the summer; five lost starters will do that to a team. It was previously thought that only four starters would be lost: that changed when would-be senior center Ryan Wischnefkski opted to forgo his final season of eligibility. This group is young, inexperienced and, until proven otherwise, the team’s overwhelming weakness. There is no senior on the two-deep; worse yet, there is no senior offensive lineman on the entire roster, though the Owls do have a few fourth-year juniors. Discussing which five underclassmen will start the season opener is likely foolish, as the competition will run through fall camp and, potentially, into the first month of the season. However, as the Owls entered the summer, sophomores Andy Czuprynski, a former defensive lineman, and Jordan Sessa held the top spots at left guard and center, respectively, and junior Sam McRoy looks to be the starter at right guard. The situation is very dire at both tackle spots. No one player was able to claim the top role during the spring, though redshirt freshman DeAndre Williams and Troy Niblack are the two primary contenders at left tackle. Another sophomore, Joseph Bailey, leads the way at right tackle, with juniors Max Karrick and Chris Newbold also in the mix. This offensive line is a major, major concern. 

Game(s) to watch

The three-game stretch to end the season may force F.A.U. to start fast, instead of wait until the final month to make a run at six wins. However, ending the season with M.T.S.U. and Troy also gives F.A.U. an opportunity to make a run at the conference championship. I suppose that’s a fair trade.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s going to be a work in progress on both sides of the ball for F.A.U. in 2010. For the first time since the Countdown was born prior to the 2008 season, I’m not predicting the Owls to reach bowl play; for the first time, I think this team will struggle. 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. Could a new coordinator, in conjunction with this returning talent, lead to a defensive revival? There certainly is a chance. 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.

Dream season The Owls return to bowl play in style: 9-3, 7-1 in the Sun Belt.

Nightmare season Another slow start, in conjunction with the brutal finish, send the Owls to a 3-9 finish.

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: 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, especially for outsiders like me. Hutton deserves co-author status on the offensive line section.

Up Next

Who is No. 96? Our next program went from bowling in 2008 to the bottom of its conference a year ago, seeing the largest drop-off in the win column from one year to the next since 1990 to 1991.

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Comments

  1. Slate says:

    Tom D’Angelo’s “FAU Focus” blog over at the Palm Beach Post is another option.

    http://blogs.palmbeachpost.com/faufocus/

  2. Big Jim Slade says:

    Maryland? 8-5 and in the Humanitarian bowl in 2008 to a 2-10 finish in 2009.

  3. [...] more Sun Belt program appeared in the last week. Florida Atlantic came in at No. 97, due to concerns about its weak offensive line, thin receiver corps and an [...]

  4. SFla Irish says:

    Is Miami a state now? I’m quite surprised by your struggles with pinpointing the location of the F_U pick’em schools since I’ve come to expect so much more.

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