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FAU Football 2018 Season Preview: What will the Lane Train do for an encore

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After recording the best season in school history, Lane Kiffin has the chance to accomplish even more in Year 2.

Florida Atlantic v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

10 Years removed from the best season in school history, FAU proceeded to honor the 2007 team and shatter expectations, finishing the 2017 season with an 11-3 record, the now-best season in school history. With those 11 wins FAU took home their first ever Conference USA Championship, defeated FIU in the Shula Bowl, and capped off the season with a Boca Raton Bowl beatdown over Akron.

Rat poison aside, I think it’s safe to say that Lane Kiffin and the FAU Owls met expectations in 2017. What will Kiffin and Co. do for an encore? With 15 returning starters, including one of the best players in the nation in Heisman hopeful Devin Singletary, many see FAU repeating as C-USA champs, with a shot at earning the highly coveted New Year’s Six bid.

Unlike last season where FAU was flying under the radar, the Owls will have no such luxury. The Owls will go from the hunter, to the hunted. With a ton of talent returning and the Lane Train still running the show, 2018 should be another special year in paradise.


Offense

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky
Devin Singletary
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

With the departure of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, Lane Kiffin decided to bring in another famous coaches’ son in Charlie Weis Jr. The skeptics will point to Weis’ age (25) as a reason why we could potentially see FAU’s offense sputter a bit but there’s no reason why that should happen when you have a Motor in the backfield.

Devin Singletary rewrote the record books last season with 1,920 yards and 32 touchdowns. Singletary was a big reason why FAU was the best team in the country at Finishing Drives - a stat that measures how good you are at scoring once your inside the opponents 40-yard line - and should be dynamite yet again with all-conference performer Reggie Bain leading the way on the offensive line.

Of course, with a talent such as Motor in the backfield, it’s easy to be one-dimensional. While inconsistency at quarterback never really hurt FAU last year, if the Owls are to be the Group of Five’s best team and make a trip to the NY6, improved QB play is a must.

For the third straight season FAU has a QB competition. This year’s players vying for snaps are De’Andre Johnson, Chris Robison and late arrival, Rafe Peavey. Peavey’s late entry into the battle was a surprise, as the former four-star recruit has had the opportunity to take snaps with the first-team. Each QB came to FAU as a transfer and were highly sought after recruits.

Being that Kiffin likes to play things close to the vest, its anyone’s guess as to who will ultimately trot out as QB1 when the offense takes the field in Norman. While last year’s starter Jason Driskel lacked consistency as a passer, he was a dynamite rusher, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Being that Johnson and Robison are more capable runners than Peavey, the Owls might be better off with Johnson or Robison winning the job. No matter who ends up the starter, each player provides enough confidence that the vertical passing attack will be much better than last year.

With the departures of Kalib Woods and Kamrin Solomon, the Owls will need deep threats to emerge for the offense. Former West Virginia receiver Jovon Durante could be the answer here. Speedster Willie Wright should be amazing out of the slot once again after leading the team in receptions (56), yards (657) and touchdowns (6) as a freshman last year. Joining him as a veteran pass catcher is the best tight end in C-USA, Harrison Bryant. Bryant’s 80 percent catch rate and 65 percent success rate led the team, as he feasted on defenses in the flats off of play-action.

As great as last year’s offense was, it could be even better due to depth. Former Alabama running back B.J. Emmons figures to replace Greg Howell as Singletary’s primary backup, and the depth at receiver is arguably the best FAU has ever seen with DeAndre McNeal, Tavaris Harrison and Jordan Merrell.

With Lane Kiffin still calling the shots, FAU will field one of the best offenses in the country.


Defense

NCAA Football: North Texas at Florida Atlantic
Azeez Al-Shaair
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Regarded as a question mark throughout the offseason in 2017, the 2018 defense has the potential to be the best FAU defense ever. Senior Azeez Al-Shaair and junior Rashad Smith headline the front-seven as they combined for 22.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and nine pass breakups in 2017.

But despite the gaudy numbers from the linebacker duo, FAU was just 99th in LB Havoc Rate. The defense finished 111th in Stuff Rate (tackles at or behind LOS). Chris Kiffin’s surprise departure to the NFL opened the door for Lane to hire one of the best up-and-coming defensive coordinators in the country, Tony Peccaro.

Peccaro’s defenses at Southern Miss were ultra aggressive. Owl fans should expect to see all-or-nothing blitzes this season as Al-Shaair and Smith should be even more disruptive. The defensive line is still a cause for concern, just like last year. Tim Bonner and Charles Cameron must step up in order to provide depth.

Peccaro’s change in philosophy will put a lot more pressure on the secondary as they could be in more man-to-man overages. Last year FAU recorded a school-best 20 interceptions while utilizing a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense. Seniors Herb Miller, Andrew Soroh, Shelton Lewis and do-it-all safety Jalen Young return as an opportunistic veteran group.

Peccaro used a lot of hybrid 3-3-5/4-2-5 schemes at Southern Miss. Zyon Gilbert and Quran Hafiz shined as freshmen last season and due to the amount of defensive backs that are required to see the field in this system, we should see them continue to thrive as second-year players under Peccaro.

Special Teams

FAU was so good last year that they rarely needed Greg Joseph to come through in a clutch situation. Joseph is now booming 50-yard field goals through the upright as a Miami Dolphin. Ryan Rickel averaged a really good 42.4 yards per punt last year and delivered perhaps the biggest play of the season on special teams, when he converted a fake punt against WKU.

Both Joseph and Rickel will be missed. Any sort of major regression on offense will require young players to step up as the Owls could potentially start freshmen at kicker and punter. Kerrith Whyte Jr. averaged 24.7 yards per kick return and became the first Owl to record a kickoff return touchdown. Jalen Young averaged 12.4 yards a PR. Whyte and Young could make the all-conference team as returners.


Outlook

NCAA Football: North Texas at Florida Atlantic Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The football played in paradise in 2018 should be great yet again. The questions is: How great? While many expect FAU to repeat as C-USA champs, it’s easy for fans to want more given how much talent returns from last year’s 11-win team.

With trips to Oklahoma and UCF on the schedule, FAU has the opportunity for landmark wins in front of a national audience. While reaching the NY6 is an attainable goal this season, fans should not make this the bar for determining whether the Owls had a successful year. S&P+ gives FAU a 22 percent chance to beat the Sooners and a 33 percent chance to beat the Knights.

If FAU is somehow able to go 1-1 between OU and UCF, landmines abound during the conference schedule. The Owls play Middle Tennessee, Marshall, FIU and North Texas, all on the road. If the Owls regress and see themselves in a lot more close games, youth on special teams could be a reason why they don’t repeat. But given how dominate FAU was against C-USA last year, I can’t see more than one loss during conference play.

In 2018 the Lane Train is probably going to have to settle for back-to-back Conference USA Championships. The idea that FAU is has reached the point of settling for conference titles is funny to me, yet here we are. Given how wild the Lane Train typically gets FAU fans should buckle up for another exciting ride.