GAME ELEVEN: FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS
Coach: Charlie Partridge, 2nd year (3-9)
2014 record: 3-9 (2-6 Conference USA)
Last meeting: Florida 41, FAU 3
All time series: Florida, 2-0
Streak: Florida 2
The skinny: Cue the annual pre Thanksgiving weekend joke game. The Owls appear to be paid GatorBait every four years, as Florida has used them as their cupcake game in 2007 and 2011. But at least they were somewhat respectable under Howard Schnellenberger. Under first year head coach Charlie Partridge, FAU was so bad last year that they qualified for second to last in Conference USA. They promise to be little better this year, as a team that typically ranks #7 in terms of prestige in the state of Florida (in no order: Florida, FSU, Miami, USF, UCF and FIU) is incapable of solving their problems- at least against a team like the Gators- with recruiting.
Returning starters: 6
Mobile QB Jaquez Johnson should win the starting job for FAU for the third year in a row. OK, cool; he’s thrown exactly one touchdown pass in three games against BCS level schools. In general, Johnson has struggled with consistency, and that’s not going to be helped by the fact that FAU seems to have no idea what kind of offense they want to run. Offensive coordinator Brian Wright’s offense only got worse after he was retained by Partridge, and now they don’t even have any big play capability thanks to nearly two thirds of their 2014 receiving productivity is gone.
The good news for FAU is that they do have some decent running backs. Jay Warren and Greg Howell teamed up 824 yards on the ground despite some less than stellar blocking, and now that running the ball seems to be more of a necessity, they figure to be counted on more. Throw in Johnson as a potentially dangerous runner (599 rushing yards last year) and you’ve got the pieces for a somewhat respectable read option game. Now, if only the offensive line can step up. FAU returns three starters up front (Dillon DeBoer, Reggie Bain and Miikingson Marsaille), but they got absolutely manhandled at times last year. That obviously can’t happen if the Owls want to form at least a semblance of an offense.
The receivers corps is a mess. The Owls’ top receiving target is former walk on Jenson Stoshak, and after that, it gets really murky. Running back Henry Bussey may have to move over to slot receiver because of the dire need for explosive (word used loosely) playmakers. It’ll be up to Bobby Mitchell, Kalib Woods and Ralph Leonard to step up and help out, or it could be a long season on offense. And, you know, in general.
Offensive Grade: D+. There’s some promise with the mobile QB in Johnson and running backs to form a decent read option game that scores a fair among of points. In Conference USA. Which is not Florida.
Returning starters: 6
I think the best way to describe this defense is “SOS”. The Owls gave up a combined 96 points to Nebraska and Alabama last year, and surrendered 31 or more in all but two of their twelve games last year… and keep in mind, this is in Conference USA. And the Owls lose half of their secondary, the only decent component to that defense. So, yeah. This could get ugly.
FAU’s one saving grace this year may be its defensive tackle, Trevon Coley. Without him, the Owls might have had the single worst rush defense in FBS last year. Coley will need Trey Hendrickson and Robinson Eugene to step up as ends, or his efforts will be wasted. He could also use some help from the Owls’ linebackers, which loses its only dependable run stopped in Adrae Kirk. It’s up to Robert Relf and Jerrad Ward to help out, and since neither did much in terms of production last year, the Owls may get run over by every team they play.
Despite losing two key pieces in the defensive backfield, FAU’s secondary will probably be the best unit on its defense. Cre’Von LeBlanc, Sharrod Neasman and Raekwon Williams have drawn some high praise from FAU coaches. For their sake, I hope they’re right. LeBlanc and Neasman each picked off a pair of passes last year despite being overshadowed by dearly departed Damian Parms and D’Joun Smith, so there is some hope- if blind hope- that they can become dependable back there.
Defensive Grade: D-. Florida Atlantic is in way over their heads on defense. There’s too much to replace from a defense that wasn’t even that good to begin with.
Florida Atlantic wins if… They benefit from several miracles the likes of which have never been seen on a football field before. The standard for upsets in college football is Appalachian State beating Michigan; FAU beating Florida would be about a hundred times more stunning.
Florida wins if… The Gators put in even the smallest amount of effort to take care of the ball, make their blocks, catch passes thrown to them, stay with their receivers, wrap up on tackles, etc. Not that a minimal amount of effort would make Jim McElwain happy, but it would be enough to beat FAU.
Three things to watch for:
1) I’m very confident that Will Grier will be named the starting QB for the Gators fairly soon, even though Treon Harris has closed the gap a little bit. But whoever wins the starting QB job will be irrelevant in this game. I’m expecting both QB’s to play, and play very well. We may even see a little bit of Jacob Guy or Luke Del Rio (pending his situation with the NCAA).
2) One of the most heart warming things to see, in sports or not, is college football walk-ons getting a chance to shine. It may not be possible for any walk on to enjoy as sweet a moment as Michael McNeely’s against Georgia last year simply because of the importance of that play against the Gators’ biggest rival, but damn it if McElwain won’t try to give some other walk-ons their moment in the sun. When Florida has opened up a five touchdown lead, don’t you dare turn off the game; this could be a hard working young man’s moment that he’s always dreamed of. And because he’s a Gator, we as fans owe it to him to watch, smile, and applaud like crazy when he gets it.
3) Whatever happens in the first ten games, the Gators draw FSU in the Swamp the week after this. So there’s plenty for the Gators to play for here even if they come into this game at 4-6. Florida will likely have plenty to work on in order to finish the season strong, between FSU and the bowl game that they’d better be eligible for. So watch this game closely. Maybe Grier will get to throw the ball all over the yard, maybe Geoff Collins tries out a new scheme or something. It’s impossible to predict exactly what Florida will need to work on in its eleventh game, but that’s why this falls under the “something to watch for” category.
Florida Atlantic overall grade: D. A Conference USA cellar dweller serves as the perfect tonic for whatever the Gators need to improve on heading into the tail end of the season. Whatever Florida’s weakness is in mid November, FAU is bad enough to make it look fantastic.
Overview: If you want to take your son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend, or whatever to the Swamp to see a guaranteed Gator win and you couldn’t get to the New Mexico State or Vanderbilt games, this is the one to aim for. FAU poses approximately zero threat to beat Florida, and in fact are outclassed in every position matchup on the field. Even the Gators’ offensive line should dominate.
I suppose I should pause here and throw in the obligatory Georgia Southern warning, but I refuse to believe a Florida Gator football team can possibly be as bad as Will Muschamp’s 2013 team was by late November. And anybody who knows me even a little bit knows how much I hate Muschamp and thus I’m not defending him at all when I say that Georgia Southern at least ran a tricky triple-option offense that required weeks of specific scheming to stop. FAU doesn’t even have that going for them.
So what’s going to happen is fairly predictable. This game will be over by the end of the third quarter at the absolute latest, and probably by halftime. Kelvin Taylor has a big day on the ground, both Grier and Harris shine, and the defense forces multiple turnovers in what figures to be an even worse blowout than the 41-3 demolition that began Will Muschamp’s career. And unlike the 2011 free win, this one will actually help the Gators improve as a team in time for the annual showdown with FSU.
Projection: Florida 59, FAU 10