It doesn't take long for the balance of power in the Sun Belt to not only shift, but completely turn on its head. North Texas went from four straight conference titles to the conference doormat. Troy won at least eight games for five straight years, then went 3-9 in 2011. And of course, Florida Atlantic went from back-to-back bowl seasons in 2007-08 to 1-11 in 2011.
It works the other way, too, of course. Florida International went from laughingstock to conference heavyweight overnight. Louisiana-Lafayette was picked to be one of the worst teams in the conference in 2011 and damn near won the conference. Western Kentucky won four games combined in 2008-10, then won seven in 2011. When talent is so even across schools, individual hires or recruits can make an incredible amount of difference.
At least, Florida Atlantic hopes that's the case. In a conference that has seen some really nice hires in recent years -- Mario Cristobal at Florida International, Mark Hudspeth at Louisiana-Lafayette, Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky, Dan McCarney at North Texas, Hugh Freeze then Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State -- the Owls replaced the only coach they have ever known (Howard Schnellenberger, who retired after an insane and distinguished career) with Carl Pelini, defensive coordinator (and brother of the head man) at Nebraska.
Pelini brought in an intriguing offensive coordinator, and he clearly has a solid defensive mind; by all means, he could be a great hire. (Though annoying the media with closed practices, at a school that should be seeking out whatever attention it can get, is probably not the best idea.) At least, he BETTER be if he wants FAU to keep up with the Joneses in the SBC.
No matter my admiration for weird old Coach Schnellenberger, it's hard to be too tremendously optimistic about Florida Atlantic's prospects in 2011. Their YPP margin shows they were quite unlucky, and it's possible that the 3-4 could lead to a few more turnovers along the way, but with a passing game completely starting from scratch and a run game that was dreadful in 2010, one can only see minimal improvement (if any at all) on that side of the ball. That puts a lot of pressure on a defense that is learning a new scheme.
It appears that FAU has a few solid athletes around which they can build -- Cory Henry, DeAndre Richardson, etc. -- but in an ever-improving Sun Belt conference, where Florida International is surging, Arkansas State is explosive, Troy is Troy, and even the UL-Monroe's of the world might be getting their stuff together, it's unlikely that FAU has enough in the tank to make too much of a run this year.
I clearly didn't think highly of FAU last spring, but I don't think they met even my meager expectations. Schnellenberger announced his retirement before the season, and while the Owls did pull off a nice rally to take out UAB and avoid a winless campaign, it was still a sad way for the old man to go out. He built the program from scratch, he got them moved to a fancy new, 30,000-capacity stadium, and they opened up the stadium with a 1-11 season (1-4 at home).
The schedule did them no favors -- their first five games were on the road, their first three against BCS conference bowl teams, and their home opener was on October 15 -- but nothing was going to help them too much. They stayed within 14 points of foes just once in conference play, were held to single-digit scoring six times, and played in just two close games all year. A bare cupboard reveals itself in cruel, sudden ways. And now Pelini goes about restocking it.
Compiling notes for tomorrow's FAU preview. Just realized I've used "dreadful" eight times in notes. Good luck, Carl Pelini.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) April 2, 2012
Let's just say that most of those "dreadfuls" came on the offensive end. Florida Atlantic ranked 119th in Off. F/+, 120th in Off. S&P+, 119th in Success Rate+, 120th in PPP+, 120th passing, 120th on standard downs, 120th in the first quarter, 120th in the third quarter, 119th on first down, 118th on second down, 118th on second down. (Here's your reminder that there were 120 FBS teams last year.) They ranked 105th or worse in every category on their statistical profile except for second-quarter offense, in which they ranked a whopping 91st. The Florida Atlantic offense was worse than any offense in the country was good in 2011. In a word, the Owls were dreadful. The only thing they did right was play at the slowest pace in the country; a fast pace would have just added plays to the game and gotten them killed even worse than their minus-21.8 points per game margin.
So what happens now? Former Montana State offensive coordinator Brian Wright, a brave, brave man, accepted Pelini's offer to take the reins of the FAU offense.
He will attempt to convert pro-style personnel to a more fast-paced spread attack, and it might be a good fit. While "spread" means about 116 different things now, Wright's version of the spread was far from pass-heavy. He is appreciated for his adaptability, and with the personnel at hand at Montana State, his offense actually ran the ball 60 percent of the time; they passed 28 times per game, and their top two rushers combined to carry the ball 28 times per game. That means Xavier Stinson and Damian Fortner, the only returning backs with even 12 carries in 2011, will by default be heavy pieces of this offense. That they averaged just 2.4 yards per carry in their combined 47 carries is not particularly encouraging, nor is the fact that the line blocking for them must replace three multi-year starters. Pelini's recruiting efforts dug up an enormous Dutch junior college transfer (6-foot-5, 335-pound Stern Vile) and an even more enormous walk-on (6-foot-7, 342-pound Jonathon Ragoo), to go alongside a tiny new junior college running back (5-foot-6, 165-pound Martese Jackson), but we'll see what impact any of the newcomers can have.
Wright was aggressive with his Montana State passing game last year -- only a 60-percent completion rate (not great for an otherwise solid offense), but a healthy 13.8 yards per catch -- which could mean good things for sophomore Marcus Cunningham, who was by far the most interesting player in FAU's 2011 receiving corps, a unit that was, in all, just
dreadful repugnant; of the Owls targeted with at least 20 passes last year, Cunningham was the only one who averaged better than 4.6 adjusted yards per target. DeAndre Richardson was perhaps the least productive No. 1 receiver in the country last year: he was targeted 71 times and caught just 32 passes (a 45 percent catch rate), and while you can get away with a catch rate near 50 percent if you average over 15 yards per catch, Richardson averaged just 8.4. That's good for an adjusted yards-per-target figure of 1.6. On average, it would have taken between three and six passes to Richardson to generate a first down. Sophomore tight end Nexon Dorvilus was somewhat interesting -- 238 yards on 38 targets and 21 catches -- but that was about it for this unit.
Senior Graham Wilbert is the Owls' likely starting quarterback. He maintained the starting job through most of 2011, though that was possibly because his backups weren't very good. Including sacks, Wilbert averaged just 4.2 yards per pass attempt (52 percent completion rate, 9.5 yards per completion, 5.8 percent sack rate), but senior David Kool (2.4) and sophomore Stephen Curtis (1.4) couldn't come close to matching that
dreadful calamitous average.
The good news is, things can only improve for the FAU offense. While Wright was able to engineer a quick turnaround for the Montana State offense, it will probably take him a little while longer in Boca Raton.
Comparatively speaking, the FAU defense was rock solid, at least on standard downs. The Owls ranked 50th in Standard Downs S&P+ and 42nd in Standard Downs Success Rate+; despite the fact that they did give up a lot of big plays on those downs, they were actually decent at leveraging opponents into passing downs. The problem: they were the worst passing downs defense in the country. (Does "they were the best in the country at letting teams off the hook" sound more positive? Yes? Then we'll go with that.) They were 38th on first down, 112th on second down and 103rd on third down. They were significantly lacking in either the "killer instinct" category or the "cornerbacks" category. Or both.
Middle linebacker David Hinds and outside linebacker Randell Johnson were perhaps the two best players FAU had last season: They combined for 159.5 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four passes broken up and four forced fumbles. They contributed greatly to what were decent defensive line stats -- 92nd in Adj. Line Yards, 66th in Adj. Sack Rate -- and they both return in 2012. They will have to adapt to a new alignment, however -- new defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis, a longtime friend and co-worker of Pelini's, will help Pelini move from a 3-4 back toward a 4-3. (Marvin Sanders was Pelini's first choice, but he left after two months and zero games to become USC's defensive backs coach.)
This isn't the best time to move from three down linemen to four -- three of the Owls' top five linemen are gone. Rekstis has moved outside linebacker Cory Henry has moved to end to complement a decent pair of tackles (Jimmy Jean and David Baptiste), but FAU will likely need immediate contributions from three-star newcomers like junior college end Brandin Bryant and freshman ends Trevon Coley and Shalom Ogbonda.
While attrition could hurt on the line, there is certainly experience in the secondary, though one has to wonder if that is a good thing. Cornerback Keith Reaser racked up 50.5 tackles (perhaps more than you want to see from a cornerback) but did defend nine passes. The problem was, apparently, everybody else. The next three corners on the list (Treon Howard, Curtis Cross, D.J. Frye-Smith) combined for just three passes defended. There was a complete lack of playmaking ability in the defensive backfield, and it is unclear whether that will change much this fall. As with the line, a couple of three-star newcomers (junior Tony Grimes, freshman Adrian Burton) could help, but only so much.
We will know just about everything we need to know about the 2012 Owls after two games. They begin the season by hosting Wagner, then traveling to face a Middle Tennessee team that collapsed almost as much as FAU did last year. If they start 2-0, they could be on the path toward five or six wins. Start 1-1, and they could wring out a 3-9 or 4-8 season, which would still be defined improvement over last year. Start 0-2, however, and you are looking at something close to 0-12 or 1-11. We'll split the different in defining success. The Owls collapsed to such a degree that I would define a rebound to 3-9 a marginal success, 4-8 an outright success.
I love weird old Howard Schnellenberger. He put together one of the oddest resumes in the history of college football -- he was Bear Bryant's offensive coordinator, he was Don Shula's offensive coordinator, he built a contender from scrap metal at Miami, he built a New Year's Day bowl winner out of nothing at Louisville, he spent a memorably unmemorable season at Oklahoma, and then he literally built a conference champion at FAU out of scratch.
From his time as an All-American end at Kentucky in the mid-1950s, he was a unique, interesting part of football culture for almost 60 years. But wow, did he leave the cupboard bare in Boca Raton. I am not completely sold on the choice of Carl Pelini, but honestly, for a couple of years the quality of the hire won't matter. You can go from basement dweller to winner in the Sun Belt, but it might take a little while.
My advice to FAU fans: Keep your eyes off the scoreboard in 2012 and just look for signs of growth and optimism. For all we know, you might end up 2014 conference champions, but this fall probably won't be too much fun.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: