The first month of Lane Kiffin's first season in charge at FAU was a little bit rocky. His Owls got trounced by Navy (42-19) and Wisconsin (31-14), then got stuck in Wisconsin for a while because of Hurricane Irma.
They returned home to beat Bethune-Cookman but then headed north again and fell at Buffalo, 34-31. They handed the Bulls four first downs via penalty, lost the turnover and field position battles, and got Little Things'd to death, basically.
This all made sense, considering what Kiffin inherited.
FAU was 115th in S&P+ last season. They beat three horrid teams -- SIU, Rice, UTEP -- and lost their other nine games by an average of 43-22. They had a couple of decent offensive players and one of the worst defenses in FBS. Kiffin was recruiting well and hired a hungry, mostly young staff, but that doesn't assure immediate success.
From the moment the Owls returned from Buffalo, however, everything changed.
The offense that was picking up steam became unstoppable. The defense that sagged so deeply in September began showing some bite. And FAU didn't lose again.
In yards per play, the Owls went from a margin of minus-0.7 in the first three games against FBS opponents to plus-2.0 in the last nine. It was plus-2.9 over the final five games.
The Boca Raton Bowl was destined to be a blowout.
The Owls played host to an Akron that had lived a charmed life, winning close games, benefiting from happy turnovers luck, and saving its best performance for the biggest game of the year, an upset of Ohio that allowed the Zips to steal the MAC East title.
The Zips had lost 52-0 to Penn State and gotten smoked by a combined 44 in two games against Toledo, the only MAC team comparable to FAU. They entered the game ranked 110th in S&P+, nearly 100 spots lower than the Owls. They deserved a little bit of good fortune after dealing with a boatload of injuries in 2016, but they were not going to be capable of sticking with a red hot FAU team for four quarters. For anyone in a bowl confidence pool, this was destined to be a 39-pointer.
Akron stuck with the Owls for about 19 minutes.
- After two drives each, the score was 7-3 FAU. Total yardage: Owls 88, Zips 72.
- The rest of the way: FAU 43, Akron 0. Total yardage: Owls 494, Zips 74.
The carnage was even worse than we assumed it would be.
The spread was more than three touchdowns, and FAU won by more than six TDs. The Owls even randomly went for two after a late-Q3 touchdown, and the rationale was very Kiffin:
Lane Kiffin said the 2-point conversion was prompted by an Akron athletics official talking trash yesterday. "His bad," Lane said.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) December 20, 2017
Over the last year, Kiffin has managed to craft a redemption story without actually changing.
After serving a stint as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator/scorned son, he came to Boca intent on winning at all costs. If that meant hiring Art Briles’ son and saying, “My plan is not in place to please the media” (as if the media is why you should be wary of the Briles family at the moment), hiring his brother (who recently received a show-cause penalty from the NCAA), or running the score up on an overmatched opponent because of an “athletics official talking trash yesterday,” so be it.
When you’re winning, that’s all considered personality. And there’s no doubting that Kiffin has plenty of that. He proves it on Twitter almost every single day. His web presence has basically become its own sentient being at this point. He has begun to morph into a combination of Steve Spurrier and, well, a younger Lane Kiffin.
Kiffin's impact has transcended football. [FAU president John Kelly] told ESPN earlier this month that FAU's out-of-state applications for the 2018 fall semester were up 35 percent.
"And we haven't done anything else differently, so it has to be Lane," Kelly said. "He just gets it, both as a football coach and being able to attract attention to our university. I laugh just about every day at something he puts on Twitter and understand that he's about the good of the institution and is thinking about what appeals to a 17-year-old kid and not a 60-year-old guy."
FAU is a school in an affluent, white city with a huge senior population. It almost named its stadium after a gross for-profit prison. But not only is Kiffin attracting football talent to Boca Raton all the same, he’s attracting out-of-state students who just want to be near the football program.
Kiffin just signed a 10-year contract extension, and while that probably won’t keep him at FAU for an entire decade — if it does, you can make some money off of it — he’ll probably leave FAU better off whenever he does leave, especially if an increased buyout ends up part of the deal.
This is the Flutie Effect magnified. The longer FAU keeps Kiffin, and the longer Kiffin keeps winning (both of those are required), the more of a national presence this university will have, even out of the sports realm.
This doesn’t have to last, of course.
Maybe a given batch of transfers doesn’t pan out. Maybe some assistants leave, and their replacements don’t pack the same wallop. Maybe character issues permeate the two-deep. Maybe the school doesn’t address it properly.
Or maybe not. Those are all part of an undetermined future. In the present tense, no school has benefited from a recent coaching hire like FAU. The Owls just won 11 games for the first time, and they did so with:
- A junior starting quarterback (Jason Driskel)
- A sophomore star running back (Devin Singletary)
- A freshman No. 1 receiver (Willie Wright)
- A sophomore tight end (Harrison Bryant)
- Sophomore and junior starting offensive tackles (Reggie Bain and Brandon Walton)
- One senior among the top 14 tacklers on defense
FAU could be even better next year.
And the Owls were already one of the best teams in the country over the last month or two. I’m not sure where this ride on the #LaneTrain ends up, but right now, FAU is enjoying it immensely.