This preview originally published March 6 and has since been updated.
Over the last decade or so, Lane Kiffin's career has essentially unfolded in reverse.
You're supposed to take the mid-major head coaching job and power conference coordinator job first, then move on to the power conference head coaching jobs, then jump to the NFL.
Instead, at age 30 in 2005, Kiffin jumped straight to “Oakland Raiders head coach.” He went 5-15 and, with help from Oakland owner Al Davis, burned 38 different bridges on his way out the door. He landed at Tennessee as the head coach, where he won seven games in one year and sneaked out of town in the middle of the night.
Vilified in both the Bay Area and Knoxville, he took over for Pete Carroll at USC in 2010 and went 28-15 with a sanctions-riddled depth chart. His Trojans surged to 10-2 in 2011, but his last season and a half were pocked by a seven-win stumble in 2012 (which included the most miserable-looking bowl experience ever), a 3-2 start in 2013, and a firing that took place in the middle of the night at LAX.
Kiffin's young age did nothing to benefit his naturally brazen personality, but at this point in his career, he seemed to understand that some career rehab was needed. Nick Saban gave him a massive opportunity, bringing him aboard to modernize the Alabama offense, and it worked. The Tide ranked seventh in Off. S&P+ in 2014, won the national title in 2015, and, in Kiffin's masterpiece, ranked fifth in Off. S&P+ despite a freshman quarterback in 2016.
Now that he's again proved he can be a good coach, he gets another chance to be a head coach. And it's maybe the job he should have gotten about 10 years ago.
If any program understands working on a backwards timeline, it's FAU. The Owls came into existence in 2001, and Howard Schnellenberger had them in the FCS semifinals by 2003. They moved to FBS in 2005 and won the Sun Belt by 2007. Winning was so much easier for them than it was supposed to be. At first.
Since beating CMU in the 2008 Motor City Bowl, FAU has averaged 3.5 wins per year. Schnellenberger won 10 games in his last three seasons, then retired. Carl Pelini went 5-15, then resigned for non-football reasons. Interim coach Brian Wright went 4-0 following Pelini's ouster, but FAU chose Charlie Partridge to replace Pelini full-time. He went 3-9 three times.
Seriously, if you look at FAU’s history backwards, starting with 2016, it looks like a pretty standard start-up that struggles early, then begins to thrive after a decade or so. Instead, the Owls haven’t thrived in almost a decade. They needed an energy boost, and Kiffin needed a manageable head coaching situation. So they got each other.
Kiffin is still Kiffin. He's dropped some pretty clear hints of that, and I’m not even talking about January’s awkward promotional video. For instance, in talking about his hire of former Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, stained by the sexual assault scandal at Baylor, and the controversy that came with it, he said, “My plan is not in place to please the media,” as if pleasing the media was the issue.
Barring scandal, he's probably going to win. Per the 247Sports Composite, his first signing class featured 17 three-star players and ranked first in Conference USA. His staff is loaded with energetic recruiters, context and controversy aside. And he inherits one of the most experienced rosters in the country. The offense, led by legitimate stars like running back Devin Singletary and receiver Kalib Woods, could be strong.
Kiffin is back at the helm of a program. He’s got a microphone in his face again. And he might have a decent team. Buckle up.
2016 in review
It was a pretty bad start to the season when FAU eked by FCS Southern Illinois, 38-30, in the season opener while getting outgained by 78 yards. Even worse, though, was when the Owls more or less got outperformed by the 4-7 Salukis the rest of the way. Per Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, which rank all of FBS and FCS, FAU finished the season 167th. SIU: 148th.
The Owls beat only Rice and UTEP the rest of the way. They played three teams ranked 31st or better in S&P+ and lost by a combined 153-20. Against teams ranked 118th or worse (out of 128), they went just 2-3, albeit with losses by a combined 13 points. Partridge was fired the day after the season ended.
This was a bad year from start to finish, but the Owls did start to figure things out on one side of the ball late in the season.
- First 4 games (1-3) — Avg. score: Opp 41, FAU 21 | Avg. percentile performance: 18% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.4, FAU 4.6 (-1.8)
- Next 4 games (0-4) — Avg. score: Opp 35, FAU 20 | Avg. percentile performance: 22% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.8, FAU 5.0 (-1.8)
- Last 4 games (2-2) — Avg. score: Opp 44, FAU 39 | Avg. percentile performance: 36% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.5, FAU 7.4 (-0.1)
The defense struggled early and careened into a ditch late, but the offense sprang to life late.
What was the major difference? Devin Singletary.
- Devin Singletary, first 4 games: 14 carries, 36 yards (2.6)
- Singletary, next 4 games: 48 carries, 259 yards (5.4), 2 TD
- Singletary, last 4 games: 89 carries, 721 yards (8.1), 10 TD
The freshman overtook Gregory Howell Jr. in the rotation and erupted. So did the FAU offense, nearly doubling its scoring average over the final four games. The Owls scored 80 points in season-ending losses to ODU and MTSU — it took a complete defensive collapse to keep them out of the win column another time or two.
We’ll see how quickly defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin can figure out to control a defense that had turned into a bit of a tire fire at the end of the year. But Briles, whose two years as Baylor offensive coordinator produced three 1,000-yard rushers and five more 500-yard rushers, will have at least one really fun toy to play with in the backfield.
Options. They are what tend to separate strong offenses from shaky ones. Briles certainly tended to have them at Baylor -- and he needed them considering the mach-speed tempo he prefers -- and between returnees and a wealth of newcomers, he might actually have enough at FAU to get by.
It starts in the backfield. Singletary is among Conference USA's best running backs, and for a No. 2 option, Howell is pretty solid. Combined, they averaged 27 carries and three to four targets per game. If healthy, I would expect maybe 35-plus intended touches for the two of them.
They might be running behind a line that is more stable than last year's, too. FAU started 10 different linemen in 2016; injuries and shuffling can result in all sorts of glitches up front, and the Owls, who were also missing starting left tackle Reggie Bain after a motor scooter accident, had as much uncertainty up front as anyone.
If healthy, Bain would be one of eight Owl linemen with starting experience. Mid-three-star JUCO signee Joey Palmer enters the mix up front as well. A good line blocking for Singletary? That's pretty pointsy right there.
It would be surprising if FAU weren't also quite a bit better throwing the ball. The Owls ranked 97th in Passing S&P+ last year, but competition at quarterback and receiver could be stiff enough to drive up the level of play.
First, there are the returnees. Junior Jason Driskel began to thrive late in the season when he had a running game to distract defenses. After managing a paltry 108.7 passer rating through eight games, he leaped to 157.8, with a 69 percent completion rate, in those last four. In the wins over Rice and UTEP, he was particularly incredible, completing 35 of 48 passes for 550 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception.
Driskel began to lean more on tight end Tyler Cameron late in the year, and Cameron's gone. But he's the only one gone. Every other member of the FAU receiving corps is scheduled to return, including big-play options in senior Kalib Woods (934 receiving yards, 9.3 per target) and sophomore Tavaris Harrison (304 yards, 9.8 per target). Continuity in the passing game is a huge boon for an offense, and FAU has it.
FAU also has an entirely new set of passers and receivers who might not only challenge, but also overtake, the incumbents.
You start with Florida State transfer De'Andre Johnson. Johnson was dismissed from Florida State in 2015 for punching a woman and has since spoken to recruits about how a single horrible decision can change lives. He is athletic and talented, and he will be monitored closely for obvious reasons.
Then there are the new receivers, namely one-time four-star Florida signee D'Anfernee McGriff and JUCO transfer and former Texas receiver DeAndre McNeal, who chose Kiffin's Owls over UCLA. Add in three-star freshmen Jordan Merrell and Willie Wright, and you've got an awfully impressive set of newbies. Combined with returnees, this could be the best receiving corps in Conference USA if a couple of players live up to recruiting hype.
Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and defensive end Trey Hendrickson needed a lot more help than they got in 2016. The duo combined for 26 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, but if they weren't making a play, probably no one was.
The FAU defense was thin up front, banged up in the middle, and overwhelmed in the back. Only five linemen made more than nine tackles, which typically signifies a very tight rotation. Meanwhile, Al-Shaair was the only linebacker who played in all 12 games, and starter Nate Ozdemir missed the final four games. The secondary had a couple of nicks to deal with, but the lack of havoc up front made the DBs' job awfully hard.
The defense was never good, but it got much worse late in the year as the line began to wear down and Ozdemir injured his foot. It was a bend-don’t-break that bent way too much.
Hendrickson is gone, but Al-Shaair and Ozdemir are back, and help is on the way.
First, there are the three-star JUCOs: defensive ends Ernest Bagner and Tim Bonner, linebacker Carson Lydon, safety Jovon Burriss Jr. Then, there are the three-star freshmen: tackle Chase Hooper, linebacker Akileis Leroy, safety Ahman Ross, corners Quran Hafiz and Zyon Gilbert. You never want to rely on newcomers to carry a unit, but if, say, three of these nine players were to become starter-quality contributors, that would help a lot.
Experience will also provide a boon. The secondary and linebacking corps were absolutely loaded with sophomores last year, and corner Raekwon Williams, maybe the best play-maker in the secondary, was a junior. [Update: contributing safety Richie Kittles has transferred out, but former Florida State linebacker Kain Daub is reportedly transferring in.]
Barring freshman breakthroughs, the two-deep will be loaded with juniors. That cannot be a bad thing, though it might be an even better thing for the 2018 defense. It could give Chris Kiffin just enough weapons to attempt to employ his defensive identity.
What is that identity, exactly? I'm not sure — having one of the best defensive coaches in football history as a father probably means you’ve been exposed to quite a few different ideas through the years.
But after six years with Ole Miss and its damn-the-torpedoes defensive attack, one assumes Chris will like havoc. Ole Miss was willing to risk big plays in the name of creating big plays of its own, and while that backfired quite a bit with an inexperienced, banged up Rebel unit in 2016, it's a really fun defense to watch, one way or the other.
Ole Miss was at its best when it had chaos guys up front. Not sure that exists here. There are quite a few options at end, especially with Bagner and Bonner in the mix, but only two returning tackles made more than 2.5 tackles in 2016, and only one is bigger than 270 pounds. Maybe that creates a speed advantage, or maybe it just gets FAU pushed around up front.
If the line holds up, though, Al-Shaair, Ozdemir, Williams, and company might be able to swarm a bit.
Special teams has been a relative strength for FAU over the last couple of years, and the primary reasons for the Owls' No. 40 Special Teams S&P+ ranking are back. Kicker Greg Joseph's 76 percent touchback rate was fantastic, and his leg is big enough that he made four of five field goals over 40 yards. (Of course, his leg is also wild enough that he was only 6-for-9 under 40 yards.)
Meanwhile, Kerrith Whyte, Jr., is one of the steadiest kick returners in the country. FAU needs to unearth a new punter to replace the solid Dalton Schomp, but FAU still has a couple of special teams stars.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|7-Oct||at Old Dominion||93||-4.9||39%|
|28-Oct||at Western Kentucky||51||-16.7||17%|
|11-Nov||at Louisiana Tech||82||-7.1||34%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||99|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||57 / 123|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-13.0 (115)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||80 / 80|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-5 / -6.7|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||+0.7|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||83% (91%, 76%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||4.1 (-1.1)|
Kiffin is not wasting time. He beat out power conference teams for a few recruits, he put his foot in his mouth a couple of times, and he hired a young (with one noteworthy exception), ultra-aggressive staff. He is looking to win over all else, for better and for worse, and he probably will.
FAU’s hire of Kiffin and FIU’s hire of Butch Davis, combined with USF’s hire of Charlie Strong, are going to change the recruiting calculus in the state of Florida — the power schools from further away are going to lose some random recruits to these guys in the coming years — and out of the gates it appears that Kiffin got the upper hand on Davis, at least. FAU is projected right on the borderline of bowl eligibility, and if the Owls’ defense is able to rebound a bit more than projected, then seven or eight wins are on the table.
You know what you’re getting when you hire Kiffin, and FAU felt it was worth the jump.