Lane Kiffin makes his triumphant return as a head coach to the postseason in this mid-December bowl game that pits his FAU Owls against Akron.
Lane Kiffin is back in the postseason, and college football is better for it.
Kiffin’s FAU Owls will take on the Akron Zips in a home bowl game: the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl, which will be played at FAU Stadium. That’s an enormous advantage for FAU.
Will Akron be able to overcome the disadvantage and pull out the victory? Or will Kiffin and the Conference USA champion Owls run roughshod over the Zips like they have every other team since the end of September? Let’s pick apart this game to find out.
Storylines Heading Into the Game
1. Lane Kiffin Leads FAU to School’s Best Season Since Joining FBS, First Bowl Game Since 2008 - FAU started playing football not very long ago: 2001. After playing four years at the DI-AA level, the Owls joined the FBS in 2005. During the ensuing years, FAU’s best season was in 2007, which ended with an 8-5 record, a share of the Sun Belt title, and a win in its first-ever bowl game, the New Orleans Bowl. The Owls returned to a bowl game the following season, but have not been back to the postseason since then.
Clearly, FAU had high expectations when it hired Kiffin as its head coach from Alabama last year, and clearly, Kiffin has delivered. The Owls finished 8-0 in conference play, smoked North Texas in the Conference USA title game, and are a win away from only the second 11-win season in program history, after finishing last year with just three wins.
2. Akron Looking to Rebound After Being Throttled in MAC Title Game by Toledo - The final score does not do justice to the absolute beat down that was the 2017 MAC Conference Championship. After Toledo pulled back so as not to embarrass the Zips too much, Akron scored a couple garbage-time touchdowns to make the final score 45-28. Still, Akron was out-gained 561 to 396, allowed 254 yards on the ground, and turned the ball over five times during the course of the rout. If Akron wants to have a shot to take down the Owls, it cannot play anywhere close to how poorly it played Dec. 2.
3. Could Kiffin Leave? - ”Will Kiffin leave?” is not really a question. Of course he will. Kiffin has had stints as a head coach for Tennessee, USC, and the Raiders, and was the offensive coordinator at Alabama before coming to Boca Raton. The odds Kiffin finishes out his career at FAU are a flat zero. The question is really when will Kiffin leave, and where will he go? He certainly will not be heading for Knoxville, but the Oregon job is still open and there is a chance the Ducks at least sniff around Kiffin. It’s likely that Kiffin will be in Boca Raton for at least one more season before schools completely trust him again to run a major program, but it wouldn’t be completely surprising if he received an offer and left.
90.4% - FAU’s overall S&P+ percentile, 12th in the nation and second-best among Group of Five teams. Although quietly tucked away in Conference USA, FAU has been one of the better teams in the nation all season. The Owls’ strength is its offense, which ranks seventh nationally in S&P+, and although its defense isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, it isn’t too much of a hindrance (63rd nationally in S&P+). Overall, the advanced stats show FAU to be one of the stronger teams in the country regardless of conference, which should worry Akron. The Zips rank a lowly 110th in overall S&P+ nationally — the worst mark by any team in a bowl game.
197.2 - Akron’s rushing yards allowed per game, 100th in the country. This should also worry the Zips because the Owls rank sixth in the nation in rushing yards per game, ninth in scoring offense on the back of that rushing attack, and feature sophomore running back Devin Singletary, who sits fourth in the country in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns. Akron’s defense is much better than its offense, but its major flaw is in defending FAU’s greatest strength. That poses a significant matchup problem for Akron in this game.
3 - The amount of games Akron won by three points or fewer. The Zips aren’t a great team. Their defense is passable. Their offense is not good. However, Akron knows how to find ways to win close games. That is a skill that not a lot of teams have, and it is a skill that the Zips and head coach Terry Bowden used to win the MAC East division and reach a bowl game. If Akron can find some way to slow down the Owls and keep the game close late, it may have a shot of stealing a victory.
Devin Singletary, RB, FAU - He may only be 5-foot-9, but Singletary is a dangerous running back. Singletary has rushed for 1,796 yards so far this season, fourth in the nation, and has 29 rushing touchdowns, first in the nation by a considerable margin (Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke is second with 21). He has rushed for more than 100 yards in every game since Week 3, has scored at least one rushing touchdown in every game since Week 2, and has rushed for more than 200 yards in a game twice. And he isn’t doing it all on volume. He is averaging 6.5 yards per carry. The FAU offense runs through Singletary, and he is about to go up against a defense that does not defend the run well. He could have a career day against the Zips.
Ulysees Gilbert III, LB, Akron - In order to slow down FAU, Akron’s defense needs to play out of its mind, and Akron’s best defensive player is Ulysees Gilbert III. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior linebacker does everything for Akron. He leads the team in tackles (128) and sacks (5.0), and he has three interceptions, four passes defended, 8.5 tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, and a fumble recovery, too. He is the engine of this defense, and he will need to step up and play at his best to ensure that Singletary and the FAU offense are at least somewhat mitigated and the Akron offense has a chance to keep up.
Why FAU Wins
Simply put: FAU is the better team. So, for FAU to win, things just need to go as expected. Singletary rushes for more than 100 yards and a couple touchdowns; quarterback Jason Driskel does enough with his arm to open up rushing lanes for Singletary and keep Akron from stacking the box with too many defenders; and the defense does enough to keep Akron off the scoreboard. That shouldn’t be too difficult considering the Zips averaged just 23.6 points per game this season, and scored 25 or more points in a game just four times, while FAU did it in every game except two. On top of all of that, the Owls are playing at home. So long as FAU takes care of business, this game shouldn’t be particularly close.
Why Akron Wins
Akron is going to need to play a near-perfect game to come away with a win. First, the Zips need to strike early. If Akron can find the end zone on its first possession, it should quiet the home crowd down and could potentially lead to a little offensive momentum moving forward. On defense, the Zips need to find some way to slow down FAU’s rushing attack; exotic blitzes, stacking the box, anything to keep Singletary from gashing them on the ground. They won’t win comfortably, but Akron has the ability to win close games. If they can stymie FAU’s offense just a little bit, the Zips might be able to keep up offensively and put just enough points on the board to secure the win.
There’s a reason FAU opened as a 23-point favorite: it is clearly they’re the better team and are playing at home. I don’t anticipate this being a very close or competitive game. Actually, I expect FAU to beat the living hell out of Akron, akin to how Toledo handled the Zips in the MAC championship, but it should still be fun to watch. Akron hasn’t shown itself to stop the run effectively this year, so Singletary should have a field day, and could certainly break the 200-yard mark. It will be wonderfully exciting to watch him tear apart the Zips defense in front of his home crowd. Akron will score some points, but it won’t be nearly enough.
FAU wins and covers, 45-17.
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- This is FAU's first-ever bowl game