Rivalry: noun — Definition: Competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field (Oxford English Dictionary)
By the above definition of the word rivalry, FIU and Florida Atlantic have indeed participated in the annual Shula Bowl game 20 times.
However, right below the definition of the word lies several synonyms, which include the following: Competitiveness, competition, struggle, conflict, opposition — none of which even remotely apply the Shula Bowl’s two decades of existence.
Florida Atlantic has 15 wins over FIU since two teams first met in November of 2002 at then Pro Player Stadium. If the disparity in the wins isn’t bad enough, the average margin of victory is one that hasn’t been remotely close, as the last eight FAU victories have been by at least two scores.
As Saturday’s game comes upon us, FIU is undoubtedly in the midst of their ugliest stretch of losses to the Owls.
Since 2016’s upset of FAU, the Panthers have lost the last five games by a whopping average of 29.8 points — which includes an Owls’ win in 2017 that paved the way for them to play in the Conference USA title game and a thrashing of favored FIU on its home field in 2018 when the Panthers could have clinched an East division crown with a victory.
The Owls haven’t been shy about reveling in the pain of the Panthers.
“Winning this rivalry game three consecutive years is really special for our fans and players. We have former players come back and you would like to think it impacts recruiting, because those guys (FIU) are in our own backyard,” said FAU head coach Lane Kiffin. “We get to hold on to the trophy for another 364 days and have those bragging rights, which is important to us.”
“I’m sure the talking was going on all week and it’s fun when you get to compete against your friends — but it’s better when you get to win,” said Taggart.
So why exactly does this matchup represent so much for FIU?
With Florida Atlantic headed for greener pastures (and almost five times more media revenue) in the American Athletic Conference, FIU doesn’t just appear like a figurative “little brother” because of the disparity in wins, the Owls look superior in getting chosen to join the more high-profile league.
For the first time since both programs’ infancy, they won’t be conference mates and to be frank, the five-game stretch has made the Panthers look every bit of a redheaded stepchild.
Undoubtedly, the Owls would love nothing more than to beat FIU on their home turf one final time before leaving for the American.
Following both teams exit to the field, there was a skirmish involving the FIU "helmet" sticker being take back to the FIU locker room. Numerous FAU players tried to get it back. You can see the sticker thrown towards the end of the video. pic.twitter.com/Lxpu6QtJeV— Eric Henry (@EricCHenry_) October 2, 2021
UPDATE: the FIU helmet that was ripped off the Shula Bowl Trophy (as per tradition) is back in the possession of the FAU players and is now being used as an ash tray for celebratory cigars. https://t.co/jY8okzxqtc pic.twitter.com/ZZa6Rt77Ew— Jack Whidden (@JackWhidden3) October 3, 2021
After being serenaded with loud chants of “FCS” from the FAU faithful following last season’s 58-21 loss to FAU, there was a brief verbal skirmish between several Owls’ players and a handful of Panthers as former cornerback Jakovi Bryant tried to retain the FIU helmet sticker that’s traditionally ripped off the Don Shula Trophy. The video above shows multiple Owls entering the visitors’ tunnel at FAU Stadium in an effort to retrieve it, followed by the celebratory usage of the helmet as an ash tray.
The feeling from the players and fans alike was abundantly clear — it screamed of you don’t belong on the same field as us — and to be clear, the almost 30-point margin of victory has said as much. 19 days following the loss, Florida Atlantic would accept the invitation to leave FIU in the rearview and join the American.
While FAU will arrive at FIU Stadium prepping for the final matchup as C-USA opponents, their season has been one filled with disappointment. Like the Panthers, the Owls sit at 4-5 on the season — but came into this year with vastly different expectations than FIU. 2022 was supposed to serve as a launching pad for Willie Taggart’s club, returning key starters and bringing in several veteran assistant coaches. What the season has been is three gut-wrenching losses by three points or less and two blowouts at the hands of UNT and UCF.
Last week’s 24-17 upset of UAB may have saved the season for the Owls. May have, being the key words. If FIU can send Florida Atlantic to their sixth loss of the season, there’s a very real chance that the Owls will miss out on a postseason berth for second-consecutive season, a far cry from the two league titles in three seasons under Kiffin.
For FIU, a win would represent multitude of things, starting with helping heal the wound of having to watch Florida Atlantic leave for the American next season. A win would move the Panthers to 5-5 with a very real chance to qualify for a bowl, something that nobody saw coming entering the season. A win would prevent sixth-year senior Dorian Hall from having the dubious distinction of being on six teams who have lost to FAU.
But most importantly, a win would help further establish Mike MacIntyre and his staff in their recruiting backyard, a trump card that the Owls have held over the Panthers for nearly a decade.
“In a rivalry game you have to put up a good fight, if you don’t win it every once in awhile it doesn’t feel like that much of a rivalry,” said MacIntyre. “It hasn’t been as big of a rivalry as we would like and that’s FIU’s fault, we gotta go play better.”
In the five years I’ve covered FIU, whether informally or now formally, there’s always felt like a gap between the two programs — which has only been enhanced with the recent losses.
Another two-score or more loss to FAU will only further the divide between both programs in South Florida. An FIU win doesn’t eliminate all of the aforementioned success — but it would provide a significant statement locally that a new day is upon the Shula Bowl rivalry.