2017 Boca Raton Bowl Preview
The Lane Train
Love him or hate him (and most college football fans certainly choose the latter), Lane Kiffin is one of the most provocative figures in college football today. His career path has, quite ironically, gone the reverse of what we expect from most college coaches.
In 2007, Kiffin became the youngest head coach in NFL history. He then spent one year at Tennessee (2009), where he improved the team while making incendiary comments against several other top programs, before leaving for the greener pastures of USC. Four years at USC ended with Kiffin being left behind on a tarmac when fired immediately after a game (a move that has now been dubbed “Kiffining” by the Twitter-verse). Kiffin then “rehabilitated” himself as an offensive coordinator for a few years at Alabama, and spent this past season as his first as FAU’s head coach.
Kiffin’s comments about anyone and anything often make headlines by himself. Whether it was complaining about Urban Meyer’s recruiting practices or Terrence Cody taking his helmet off, Kiffin knows how to make the news. This season, for example, Kiffin made headlines solely by following accounts on Twitter. What was often lost in the hullaballoo surrounding him was his success (or lack thereof, depending on the season) as a coach.
FAU’s Best Season Ever
Legendary college football coach Howard Schnellenberger essentially founded the FAU football program back in 2001. He coached the team for 11 years before retiring, presumably for good. In those 11 years, he made one FCS (then Division 1-AA) playoffs and won the Sun Belt once. FAU’s best season under Schnellenberger was 2007, where the Owls went 8-5 with a Sun Belt title.
Towards the end of his career, though, the Owls began to falter. FAU won one game in 2011 and followed that with a poor short run under Carl Pelini (brother of outspoken former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini). The past three years saw 3-9 seasons under Charlie Partridge. Enter Lane Kiffin.
In just Kiffin’s first season, he has totally rejuvenated the FAU program. After beginning the 2017 season 1-3 (including respectable losses to Navy and Wisconsin, and a loss to Buffalo that, in retrospect, is one of the biggest upsets of the season), The Owls have rattled off nine straight wins. The Owls ran the table in Conference-USA play, with only one win by less than 14 points.
There is a lot to say about this FAU team. Jason Driskel stopped throwing interceptions. The offensive line is protecting him in a way that no one could have dreamed of after watching last season’s games. Devin Singletary is the best running back you’ve never heard of–he could legitimately reach 2,000 yards during the Boca Raton Bowl.
I am not trying to gloss over any of the player’s achievements. This team has legitimate stars that deserve far more attention than they received this season. Still, such drastic improvement across the board (I didn’t even mention the revamped defense) comes back to the coaching staff.
In one week, these guys are going head-to-head at this year’s Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl! 🍒🏈 pic.twitter.com/EKRIiXBZSp
— Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl (@BocaBowl) December 12, 2017
The Other Coach
How sad is it that Terry Bowden is reduced to the “other coach.” Terry Bowden is, without question, the most under-appreciated coach in the entire country. And, ironically enough, his career path is not too different from Kiffin’s.
Like Kiffin, Bowden is also the son of a legendary coach (in this case, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden). Unlike Kiffin, Bowden made a very successful start at lower levels of college football. He then moved up into a high-profile job at Auburn. Bowden’s first two seasons were very successful but were hampered by NCAA probation.
Bowden led Auburn to three solid seasons while on The Plains but resigned in disgrace after starting 1998 1-5. Bowden went into “exile” as a broadcaster. After ten years, he returned to coaching–at Division II North Alabama, to revamp his image. He has since found his home in Akron, where he has led the Zips to the most impressive turnaround that no one cares about.
The Zips have been playing football for well over 100 years, but they only moved up to FBS/D-1A in 1987. Since that move, the program had never won more than seven games before Bowden arrived. Akron was a consistently mediocre MAC team. The Zips didn’t have too many awful seasons, but they didn’t win much either. The team had one bowl appearance in history, a close loss to Memphis in the 2005 Music City Bowl.
Then this decade hit. Rob Ianello took over, and the program went 2-22 in his two years. Akron was widely-regarded as the worst program in FBS at the time (though the men’s soccer program claimed the athletic department’s first-ever national championship in 2010). Enter Terry Bowden.
What Bowden has done at Akron, especially considering the way he left Auburn and his hiatus from coaching, is nothing short of remarkable. He went 1-11 in his first year, showed marked improvement in his next two, and won eight games in 2015. Not only is that a program record (since moving to FBS), it also included the school’s first-ever bowl win. Akron beat Utah State (in a very un-fitting end to Chuckie Keeton‘s career) in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl that season. Akron didn’t make a bowl last year, but Bowden has the Zips back in their second bowl game in three years.
The 2017 Boca Raton Bowl
Honestly, this game is one of the worst matchups in all of bowl season. Akron has done great things this year, but the Zips were thoroughly outmatched by Toledo twice this season, and FAU is most similar to Toledo in terms of Akron’s opponents. The Owls are just a better team right now, and both teams deserved better.
Florida Atlantic won ten games, including an undefeated run through Conference-USA play. The Owls are one of the best Group of 5 teams in the country this year. They deserved a shot at a middle-of-the-pack Power 5 team or at least another top Group of 5 team.
Akron is slowly building a respectable program under Terry Bowden. The Zips are still, at best, a slightly-above-average MAC team. They deserve a winnable bowl game against a similar opponent as a reward for a good season. Being sent up as a sacrificial lamb against FAU is not what Akron or its fans want.
Look, this is a bowl game, and anything can always happen. Teams come out flat; teams can play the best games of their season. There’s a reason, though, that I have this game as my most confident pick in bowl pick ’em groups. There’s a reason that the spread on this game is more than three touchdowns. FAU is just a better team–and don’t let that at all distract from Akron’s success, even if the Zips can’t compete in this game.
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