Print: FAU Football 2020 Season Preview

FAU looks to defend its C-USA title in 2020.

Florida+Atlantic+Football+rushes+the+field+to+warm+up+in+the+midst+of+a+downpour+before+the+start+of+the+Shula+Bowl+on+Nov.+9%2C+2019.+The+Owls+beat+FIU+37-7.+Photo+by+Alex+Liscio.

Florida Atlantic Football rushes the field to warm up in the midst of a downpour before the start of the Shula Bowl on Nov. 9, 2019. The Owls beat FIU 37-7. Photo by Alex Liscio.

Jensen Jennings, Sports Editor

Editor’s note: This story is in the UP’s latest issue that can be found physically on campus and digitally through our Issuu page. 

After what has been a crazy nine months since the hiring of Willie Taggart, the FAU football team is finally set to kick off its season on Sept. 19 in Statesboro, Ga. against Georgia Southern*.

Former head coach Lane Kiffin and the Lane Train left Boca Raton in December and headed for the University of Mississippi after the Owls won their second Conference USA title in three seasons. Taggart was officially hired by FAU on Dec. 11. 

Since the time of his hiring, he’s had to overcome many obstacles. He hired a brand new coaching staff, lost 15 starters, didn’t have any spring football due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and had three games on the 2020 schedule canceled.

There were times throughout the offseason when it appeared unlikely that college football would be played this fall. 

The scheduled season opener at Minnesota was canceled on July 10 when the Big Ten announced it would only play conference opponents this season. The conference ended up postponing its season all together on Aug. 11. 

The Owls then lost their home opener against Stony Brook on July 17 after its conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, announced they were suspending all football operations due to concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

FAU lost a second home game this season on Aug. 10 when C-USA foe Old Dominion University would cancel its fall athletic season due to the coronavirus pandemic. ODU is the only C-USA school that has opted not to play this season. 

While FAU won’t play a 12-game schedule this fall as they would in a normal season, the Owls will still have nine games this year and will be looking to defend their C-USA title and win their third conference championship in four years.

Sept. 19 at Georgia Southern * 

The Owls will kick off their season on the road against Sun Belt Conference member, the Georgia Southern Eagles.

Last season, the Eagles finished with a record of 7-6 and lost to Liberty in the Cure Bowl 23-16. Georgia Southern did earn a win against an AP Top 25 opponent when they defeated Appalachian State 24-21 on Halloween. 

They’re led by their quarterback Shai Werts who completed 52.9% of his passes last season for 799 yards, nine touchdowns, and one interception. While his passing numbers don’t jump off the page, he has a strong command of the Georgia Southern triple option offense. Werts also carried the ball 171 times last season for 733 yards and five touchdowns. 

What to watch for: The Owls are looking for their first season-opening win since the 2016 season. To do that, they will have to be disciplined on the defensive side of the ball and keep Werts and the rest of the rushing attack in check. Replacing eight starters on the defensive side of the ball could make that a difficult task in week one. 

Sept. 26 vs. USF * 

FAU will host its first home game of the season against Taggart’s old program, the University of South Florida, where he coached at USF from 2013-2016. 

USF will be led by new head coach Jeff Scott this season. Scott was hired from Clemson where he was the co-offensive coordinator of two National Championship winning teams. He will be taking over the reins from former head coach Charlie Strong. 

What to watch for: The return of former offensive and defensive coordinators Charlie Weis Jr. and Glenn Spencer. Weis Jr. and Spencer were the coordinators at FAU last season and will be making their return to Boca for the first time since winning the Boca Raton Bowl vs SMU 52-28. 

Oct. 3 vs. Charlotte

The C-USA opener for FAU will be against the Charlotte 49ers. Last season the Owls defeated the 49ers 45-27 on the road to kick off their conference slate, where they will be looking to do that again this time around. 

Charlotte finished the 2019 season 7-6 under first-year head coach Will Healy. They also appeared in their first bowl game in program history, losing to the University of Buffalo in the Bahamas Bowl 31-9. 

What to watch for: Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds. Last season for the 49ers, Reynolds completed 62.2% of his passes for 2,564 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He also added another 791 yards on the ground and six touchdowns. FAU will need to shut down Reynolds in this game to secure the win. 

Oct. 10 at Southern Miss. 

FAU will be heading to Hattiesburg, Miss. for the first time since Nov. 2013. The Owls hold a perfect 2-0 record against Southern Miss. 

Last season, FAU defeated Southern Miss 34-17 at home to secure their spot in the C-USA title game. Southern Miss finished the 2019 season 7-6 and lost to Tulane in the Armed Forces Bow, 30-13. 

What to watch for: With all the uncertainty already surrounding the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Southern Miss will be facing even more uncertainty when its head coach Jay Hopson quit after his team lost 32-21 to South Alabama in week one of the season. 

Oct. 24 at Marshall 

After the close loss to Marshall last season, FAU will surely have this one circled on its schedule.

Last season, the Thundering Herd was the lone C-USA team to defeat the Owls on their way to a second conference championship in three years. Marshall holds a 6-1 all-time record against FAU and is currently on a two-game winning streak. 

FAU and Marshall have won the East division of C-USA in four of the previous six seasons. They’ve combined to win three conference championships in that period. 

What to watch for: Marshall running back Brenden Knox. In Marshall’s 36-31 victory over FAU last season, Knox ran all over the Owls defense. He carried the ball 23 times for 220 yards and two touchdowns. FAU will need to slow him down if they want to get a win at Marshall for the first time in program history. 

Oct. 31 vs. UTSA 

This will be the third matchup all-time for the Owls against the Road Runners. FAU owns a perfect 2-0 record against UTSA. 

Last season FAU defeated the Road Runners in San Antonio, 40-26. UTSA ended up finishing the season 4-8 overall and fired their head coach Frank Wilson after he compiled a 19-29 record over his four seasons in San Antonio. 

What to watch for: First-year head coach Jeff Traylor. This will be Traylor’s first season as a head coach at the collegiate level. He was the head coach at Gilmer High School in Gilmer, TX. From 2000-2014. Traylor came to UTSA from Arkansas where he was the assistant head coach/running backs coach for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Nov. 7 vs. Western Kentucky 

The Owls have always played well against Western Kentucky, owning a record of 8-3 against the Hilltoppers. 

Last year, Western Kentucky had a bounce-back season under first-year head coach Tyson Helton. He led the Hilltoppers to a 9-4 record with a 23-21 win over Western Michigan in the First Responder Bowl. FAU defeated WKU, 35-24, in Bowling Green last season. 

What to watch for: FAU head coach Willie Taggart going against his former school. Taggart played quarterback at WKU from 1994-1998. He won the offensive player of the year award his senior season. Taggart also started his head coaching career at WKU. He was their head coach for three seasons compiling a record of 16-20 before taking over at USF. Taggart was also the first head coach to win a game at FAU Stadium when he led the Hilltoppers to a victory over FAU 20-0 in 2011. 

FAU running back Malcom Davidson (20) scores a touchdown against Florida International University at the 2019 Shula Bowl. The Owls won 37-7. Photo by Alex Liscio

Nov. 13 at FIU 

FAU has dominated its longest-tenured rival FIU in the annual Shula Bowl game since the series started in 2002. FAU owns a record of 13-4 all-time against FIU and hasn’t lost the Shula Bowl since the 2016 season. The Owls defeated the Panthers 37-7 last season at FAU Stadium. 

The Panthers finished the 2019 season 6-7 and suffered a loss in the Camellia Bowl to Arkansas state 34-26. FIU did record arguably its biggest win in program history last season when they defeated the University of Miami, 30-24, at Marlins Park. 

What to watch for: The rushing defense for FIU. The Owls have dominated FIU on the ground in every game of their current three-game winning streak. In 2017, FAU rushed for 333 yards and three touchdowns on 46 carries in a 52-24 win. In 2018, the Owls rushed for 439 yards and five touchdowns on 60 carries en route to a 49-14 victory. In 2019, FAU rushed for 261 yards and three touchdowns on 44 carries and defeated FIU 37-7. 

Cornerback James Pierre (23) tackles MTSU quarterback Ashely O’Hare. Photo by Alex Liscio

Nov. 28 at Middle Tennessee 

FAU will end its 2020 season with a road trip to Murfreesboro, Tenn. to face off against the Blue Raiders. Last season the Owls defeated MTSU 28-13. 

The Blue Raiders finished the 2019 season with a record of 4-8. It was the first season since 2014 that Middle Tennessee did not play in a bowl game. MTSU owns a 12-5 record against FAU. 

What to watch for: Middle Tennessee quarterback Asher O’Hara. The signal-caller for the Blue Raiders can make plays with his arm and legs. O’Hara completed 62.7% of his passes last season for 2,616 yards, 20 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He added another 1,058 yards on the ground and nine rushing touchdowns. 

Jensen Jennings is the sports editor for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @Jensen_Jennings

* The game at Georgia Southern and the game vs. USF were postponed after this article was sent to print due to COVID-19 concerns. You can check out the story about Georgia Southern here and the story about USF here