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Lane Kiffin’s FAU debut could not have been more impressive. What can the Owls do for an encore?

Everything came up Kiffin in 2017.

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Florida Atlantic vs Akron Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, we see surprising shifts. On average, about four teams each year improve by 50 or more spots in S&P+, and about four fall by the same amount. Sometimes those come out of nowhere — 2016 Colorado rose from 97th to 18th, 2011 Vanderbilt from 98th to 21st, 2012 SJSU from 98th to 26th — and sometimes they’re exaggerated versions of what we’d expected.

Last year was a big year for these surges.

  • Arkansas State rose 56 spots
  • Purdue rose 64 spots
  • Georgia rose 65 spots
  • Marshall rose 66 spots
  • UCF rose 68 spots
  • Ohio rose 70 spots
  • Fresno State rose 93 spots

Fresno’s was the second-largest on record, topping the 81-spot improvement that Skip Holtz engineered in 2014. But the Bulldogs also had only the second-largest rise of 2017. FAU did them 11 spots better.

It was easy to assume the Owls would improve in Kiffin’s first year. They returned almost all of their 2016 production from a team that had been unlucky to win only three games. Charlie Partridge had left a decent base of talent, and Kiffin took a waste-no-time approach, bringing in quite a few JUCOs and transfers.

As it turned out, Kiffin didn’t need many of those newcomers. He and his Owls just needed a few games to find a rhythm.

The Owls started the season 1-3, with an encouraging, competitive loss to Wisconsin and an easy win over FCS’ Bethune-Cookman sandwiched by a blowout loss to Navy and a surprising late slip-up at Buffalo. There were hints of potential, but the season was to that point most notable for the fact that FAU had to stay (and practice) in Wisconsin for a few days because of Hurricane Irma.

There’s value in high-caliber coaching, though. Kiffin came to Boca Raton as a seven-year head coaching veteran with three seasons under Nick Saban at Alabama. His offensive coordinator of choice, Kendal Briles, was at the helm of the second-best offense in the country in 2015. His defensive coordinator of choice (and younger brother), Chris Kiffin, was in charge of one of the best lines in the country at Ole Miss (2012-16).

It was available, of course, because of context. The younger Kiffin was available because he was about to receive a show-cause penalty for his part in Ole Miss’ NCAA violations. Briles was available because of his father’s egregious misdeeds at Baylor. And because Lane Kiffin is Lane Kiffin — equal parts smart, charming, funny, tactless, and alarmingly willing to take character risks — he had no problem bringing both aboard.

With a month of testing under their belts, Kiffin’s charges figured things out when conference play began. The Owls beat MTSU by 18, ODU by 30, and North Texas by 38. They briefly lost their rhythm a bit, beating WKU and Marshall by a mere combined 19 points, then hit the accelerator again. They won at Louisiana Tech by 25, beat rival FIU by 28, and coasted in Charlotte to finish the regular season 9-3.

And then they got even better. They destroyed UNT in a C-USA title game that seemed even less competitive than the 41-17 margin. And while they didn’t get a chance to prove themselves against high-caliber competition in a bowl, they settled for a dismantling of Akron at home in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Put simply, FAU was one of the best teams in the country from September 30 onward, even if the Owls didn’t have a chance to prove it against power-conference teams.

  • FAU, first 3 games vs. (0-3): Avg. score: Opp 36, FAU 21 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.3, FAU 5.6 | Avg. percentile performance: 33% (42% offense, 18% defense)
  • FAU, last 10 games (10-0): Avg. score: FAU 46, Opp 21 | Avg. yards per play: FAU 7.1, Opp 5.1 | Avg. percentile performance: 86% (85% offense, 64% defense)

In 2018, FAU becomes a slightly more conventional C-USA team. Briles took Houston’s offensive coordinator job, while Chris Kiffin will serve the rest of his show-cause sentence as a defensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers.

Kiffin replaced them with hires more befitting of C-USA — he hired 24-year-old Charlie Weis Jr., a former offensive analyst under him at Alabama, as offensive coordinator and stole defensive coordinator Pecoraro from Southern Miss.

The head coach must also replace his starting quarterback (Jason Driskel), two of his top three receivers (Kamrin Solomon and Kalib Woods), two all-conference offensive linemen (Antonyo Woods and Roman Fernandez), and one of his best pass rushers (tackle Jeremiah Taleni). And then there’s the matter of what happened the last time a Kiffin team had high expectations.

He still has running back Devin Singletary, though. And he’s brought in a couple of new transfers to go with his 35 three-star signees from the past two classes.

FAU is still far and away your C-USA favorite. But Kiffin teams have a way of making things interesting.

Offense

2017 FAU offensive radar

Maybe the scariest thing about FAU’s offense is that it was still limited ... and the Owls ranked sixth in Off. S&P+.

FAU had a tendency to fall into the occasional third-and-long, and Kiffin and Briles focused on getting the ball out of Driskel’s hands quickly and safely — only one of FAU’s top four targets averaged more than 12.8 yards per catch.

Because of Singletary, that was really all that was required of the passing game.

Singletary erupted over the second half of 2016, his freshman season, rushing for 869 yards in six games, and after a sluggish start to 2017 (23 carries for 94 yards against Navy and Wisconsin), he one-upped himself, averaging 23.2 carries and 152.2 yards per game over the final 12 contests. He scored at least two touchdowns in 10 different games. Despite his 5’9 stature, he is one of college football’s most durable, exciting backs.

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Florida Atlantic vs Akron
Devin Singletary
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

He’s got a couple of new four-star teammates, too. B.J. Emmons fell down the Tide’s depth chart after a couple of injuries and transferred to Hutchinson CC last fall. He committed to FAU in February. WVU transfer and four-star Florida prospect Jovon Durante came aboard last August.

Throw in high-three-star JUCO receiver Nero Nelson, a former Mississippi State signee, and mid-three-star freshman RB Malcolm Davidson, and FAU still has by far the most high-upside skill corps in the conference, especially when you take into account slot receiver Willie Wright, senior wideout DeAndre McNeal, and tight end Harrison Bryant, who caught 80 percent of his passes last year.

NCAA Football: Youngstown State at West Virginia
Jovon Durante
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The line loses three starters but also basically returns three: left tackle Reggie Bain (who earned first-team all-conference honors last year), right tackle Brandon Walton, and Tulane center Junior Diaz, a graduate transfer. Plus, JUCO transfer Marcel Southall was the second best-rated prospect in FAU’s signing class.

Great! So is there a quarterback? Probably.

Driskel retired in January, but the candidates for replacing him are impressive. Former FSU and Last Chance U. quarterback De’Andre Johnson missed 2017 after a blood clot issue but should be 100 percent when spring ball starts. Former Oklahoma quarterback and four-star prospect Chris Robison is eligible now. Both have dual-threat capability, an underrated aspect of Driskel’s game — he averaged 5.9 yards per non-sack carry (and rarely took sacks).

With Wright and Durante, Johnson/Robison will have some serious efficiency threats on the perimeter, and if Emmons is the real deal, Singletary might not have to carry 23 times per game. (He might, anyway — last year’s backup, Gregory Howell Jr., was excellent, too.) As long as there’s no serious drop-off in interior line play, FAU’s offense will be dynamite again.

Defense

2017 FAU defensive radar

While the FAU offense was devastating for any level, the FAU defense was merely good for C-USA. The Owls prevented big plays and pulled a nice bend-don’t-break routine, but they weren’t particularly disruptive — 111th in stuff rate, 80th in havoc rate.

They were also pretty young. Three of the six leading tacklers on the line, and two of three linebackers, were sophomores. Safety Zyon Gilbert was a true freshman, as was nickel back Quran Hafiz. The defense featured only a couple of seniors.

That’s very good news for Pecoraro. The former North Alabama, Alcorn State, and Southern Miss coordinator crafted an aggressive defense in Hattiesburg, one that ranked 31st in success rate and 32nd in Def. S&P+. The Golden Eagles were second in stuff rate and 18th in havoc rate, so expect a lot more aggression this year.

The linebackers probably won’t mind. Azeez Al-Shaair and Rashad Smith combined for 22.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and nine pass breakups for a passive defense last year. Imagine the possibilities.

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Rice
Azeez Al-Shaair
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Between Smith on the weakside, Leighton McCarthy and Hunter Snyder at end (combined: 17 TFLs, 10.5 sacks), and Shelton Lewis and Chris Tooley (combined: eight INTs, 13 breakups), Pecoraro should have the attackers he needs on the perimeter. Al-Shaair and safety Jalen Young provide a sturdy backbone, too.

Tackle Jeremiah Taleni was a nice attacker in the middle, but he’s the only departing starter, and Pecoraro will still have senior Steven Leggett, juniors Kevin McCrary and William Davis, and mid-three-star JUCO Charles Cameron at the position.

As good as FAU’s offense will be, it might be hard for the Owls to match last year’s No. 6 Off. S&P+ ranking. The defense, however, stands to improve on last year’s No. 52 Def. S&P+ ranking. That could offset any offensive regression.

Special Teams

Something else FAU had going: sturdy legs. Kicker Greg Joseph had a booming leg that he could usually control on kickoffs and field goals, and punter Ryan Rickel averaged a solid 42.4 yards per punt. Their respective departures could hurt.

FAU does still have Kerrith Whyte Jr. (24.7 KR average, one touchdown) and Jalen Young (12.4 PR average), but they probably can’t kick a 40-yard field goal.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Oklahoma 9 -13.3 22%
8-Sep Air Force 112 21.4 89%
15-Sep Bethune-Cookman NR 40.9 99%
22-Sep at UCF 17 -7.7 33%
29-Sep at Middle Tennessee 83 9.1 70%
6-Oct Old Dominion 114 22.7 91%
20-Oct at Marshall 62 4.3 60%
27-Oct Louisiana Tech 70 11.6 75%
3-Nov at Florida International 120 19.0 86%
10-Nov Western Kentucky 90 15.8 82%
17-Nov at North Texas 86 9.8 71%
24-Nov Charlotte 126 26.3 94%
Projected S&P+ Rk 31
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 30 / 47
Projected wins 8.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.9 (91)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 77 / 79
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 4.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +3.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 73% (56%, 90%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 11.3 (-0.3)

FAU was incomprehensibly good over the final three months of 2017, and incomprehensible is usually unsustainable. The Owls have a massive target on their back and face a really tricky schedule.

First, there are non-conference trips to Oklahoma and UCF. The Owls have opportunities for massive upsets, and S&P+ likes them just enough to give them a 50-50 chance of going 1-1, but trips to Marshall, MTSU, North Texas, and FIU also offer pretty good upset opportunities ... against FAU.

But really, you have to nitpick to grow too skeptical. This team is absolutely loaded. Coordinator changes are tricky, but Pecoraro is proven, and while Weis Jr. is crazy-young, Kiffin is a de facto coordinator anyway. Plus, while there’s a QB change, there’s a chance that either Johnson or Robison might have overtaken Driskel anyway. And that new QB will be sharing a backfield with maybe the best mid-major player, Singletary.

Kiffin probably isn’t long for Boca Raton, but he made an absurd impression in his first season, and FAU has a very good chance of replicating it.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.