Charlotte 49ers (Conference USA) vs Florida Atlantic Owls (Conference USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, September 27, 7:00 PM EDT
TV: CBS Sports Network (Play-by-Play: Chris Hassel/Analyst: Robert Turbin)
Radio: WZVG 730 The Game Charlotte (Play-by-Play: Matt Swierad/Analyst: Al Wallace/Sidelines: Bobby Rosinski)/Fox Sports 640 South Florida (Play-by-Play: Ken LaVicka/Analyst: Kris Bartels)
Location: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, FL
Betting Line: UAB -7 O/U 59
All-Time Series Record: Florida Atlantic leads 5-2 (Florida Atlantic won last matchup 38-9 in 2021)
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
There are no two ways about it — 2022 is a make or break season for Florida Atlantic head coach Willie Taggart. While he took over a roster that was certainly in a transitional phase following the departure of Lane Kiffin for Ole Miss in late 2019, the Owls’ 10-11 record over the last 21 games has left the fans in Boca yearning for a return to competing for conference titles.
Taggart overhauled his staff in the offseason, adding several new assistants — most notably former Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon, former Georgia Southern head coach Chad Lunsford and former USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Those additions have inspired a renewed optimism entering this season, along with the development of several key returners.
Quarterback N’Kosi Perry had a solid first season in Boca after transferring from Miami, throwing for 2,771 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions while adding four scores on the ground. However, just like the team as a whole, his engineering of the offense down the stretch faltered and played a role in Owls losing their last four contests of 2021. In his second season with the program, Taggart has noted Perry’s increased leadership amongst his teammates.
“N’Kosi is definitely more comfortable in his second year with us, I think last year he was a little timid and he didn’t want to rock the boat as the new guy,” said Taggart on the Underdog Dynasty podcast. “We’re expecting big things out of him and he’ll play a major role and how successful we are this year.”
The FAU rushing game will be a storyline to keep an eye on throughout the season, starting with the season opener. South Florida transfer Johnny Ford accounted for over 1,100 yards from scrimmage last year, including leading the team with 831 yards on the ground. However, it was announced this week that former three-star recruit Larry McCammon III will be the starting running back.
McCammon has been injured and struggled to find his footing in various roles since Taggart took over, but when healthy has showed flashes of being an number one back. Ford will still have a defined role in the offense, as stated by Taggart.
As the offense comes together, the FAU defense may have the shoulder the load in the early-going of the season — but the unit is more than talented enough to do so.
The defense return several key contributors including defensive linemen Evan Anderson and Jaylen Joyner and defensive backs Teja Young and Romain “Smoke” Mungin. Anderson and Young were named to UDD’s top-35 players in Conference USA list entering the season, while Joyner and Mungin are rising players whose best football is ahead of them.
“Smoke has improved a lot in the offseason and were expecting him to rise to the occasion in our secondary along with Teja,” said Taggart.
Young, a redshirt junior has been among the top defensive backs in the league over the past two seasons and is looking to have a breakout 2022 as the veteran in the room.
“I definitely feel like I’m the leader in the group and just trying to lead by example for the guys,” said Young.
The week zero matchup against Florida Atlantic is intriguing for a number of reasons, arguably the most notable is the fact that like the Owls, Will Healy’s Charlotte team are looking to rebound after two subpar seasons. The 37-year-old Healy took over a 49ers program that had never qualified for a bowl and led them to a 7-6 campaign in 2019.
What’s followed since then is a 7-11 record that, in large part, has seen the team struggle to keep opponents out of the end zone. As a result, co-DC’s Marcus West and Marcus Cooper were replaced in the offseason by veteran defensive mind Greg Brown, who has stops at Power Five programs and in the NFL on his resume, but his last time as a defensive coordinator was in 2012 at Colorado.
The mystery around Brown has been somewhat of a storyline in the offseason, as the speculation as to what Brown and the Niners will run has been rampant.
“We have open practices, so I’m not too worried about anyone else coming in and looking, if that’s what they have to do then more power to them,” said Healy. “I have all the confidence in the world in Coach Brown and we’ll run a bit of everything.”
The success of the defense will undoubtedly depend on several players, most notably defensive end Markees Watts and Central Michigan transfer Amir Siddiq. Watts has been a presence in C-USA for several years. In his last two full seasons, the 6-0, 220-pounder has recorded back-to-back 60+ tackle seasons with 20 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. Siddiq was second on the team in tackles for loss (9) and sacks (4) for Central Michigan last year and has earned a starting role immediately.
Overall, the Niners return six starters on defense and a measure of continuity in the secondary should serve them well, as will DBs Solomon Rogers, Trey Creamer and Geo Howard, plus they’ll get safety Tank Robinson back, who missed the majority of last season.
For all of the questions defensively, the Charlotte offense has the potential to be one of the best in Group of Five football, starting with quarterback Chris Reynolds. The diminutive signal-caller has stood tall despite challengers to his job and is the undisputed leader for the Charlotte program.
Reynolds threw for 2,680 yards and 26 touchdowns with nine interceptions last year and is a more than capable dual-threat, having rushed for over 900 yards and 11 touchdowns in his four seasons with the Niners.
On the outside, Charlotte possesses the top receiver trio in Conference USA in Victor Tucker, Grant DuBose and Elijah Spencer.
Tucker has been a C-USA stalwart since arriving in the league in 2017, hauling in 187 catches for 2,660 yards and 15 scores. DuBose was a virtual unknown this time last year, having worked at Wal-Mart in between college football stops but is now considered among the top G5 receiver prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft. The 6-2, 205-pound DuBose had 62 catches for 892 yards and six scores last year, while Spencer earned league Freshman of the Year honors with his 28 grabs for 381 yards and six touchdowns.
In the backfield, Charlotte returns a pair of talented backs in Calvin Camp and Shadrick Byrd. The duo combined for over 1,200 yards on the ground and seven scores — and both are threats in the receiving game as well, totaling 35 catches for 378 yards and three touchdowns.
While one game doesn’t determine any program’s season, the loser of this game will have a fanbase that’s a step or two below full-panic mode. Both Charlotte and Florida Atlantic are entering their swan song season in C-USA and both programs would like to leave the conference on a high note — which starts with this week zero matchup.
Both coaches have more “high-profile” games on their schedules, but when asked on the UDD podcast, neither would look any further than Saturday’s contest.
The game should come down to how well the Florida Atlantic defense, specifically the secondary, can fare against an excellent trio of Niner targets and Chris Reynolds. In the end, FAU is a bit more established entering the game.
Final Score: Florida Atlantic 31, Charlotte 27