2021 FAU Football Season Preview

Owls look to build upon chaotic 2020 season.


Graphic by Marcy Wilder with illustrations by Michelle Rodriguez-Gonzalez.

Eston Parker III, Photo Editor

In his first season as head coach at FAU, Willie Taggart and his Owls endured a chaotic 2020 season which initially had 12 scheduled games yet only eight regular-season games were played.

Following a topsy-turvy start to the season in which the Owls began with a 5-1 record amidst four games being canceled due to COVID-19 protocols, they lost their final three games which concluded with a tough 25-10 defeat to Memphis in the Montgomery Bowl.

Taggart and his Owls have since brought in some new faces, both within the coaching staff and the playing roster.

Among the coaching changes, last season’s defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt, left to assume the same position at Southern Methodist University. Mike Stoops has stepped in as Leavitt’s replacement, becoming FAU’s fifth defensive coordinator in five years. Jon Bills was hired as FAU’s new tight ends coach following the departure of Drew Mehringer, who also served as co-offensive coordinator. Ed Warinner replaces Jeff Norrid as the offensive line coach, following Norrid’s departure to Louisiana.

Lastly, amongst the coaching changes, former Super Bowl-winning wide receiver Hines Ward has joined the staff as a “special assistant to the head coach” and will work directly with wide receivers coach Joey Thomas.

Amongst the additions to the roster, FAU secured the transfer of N’Kosi Perry from Miami. The former UM starter enters a loaded quarterback room featuring Javion Posey, Nick Tronti, and Willie Taggart Jr.

FAU continued to be active in the transfer portal, securing offensive lineman Kamaar Bell from Auburn and kicker Logan Lupo from Louisville.

The Owls also endured a tragic loss this off-season as the founder of the football program and the first head coach of FAU, Howard Schnellenberger, passed away at the age of 87 in late March.

FAU announced that on Sept. 10, the day before the home opener against Georgia Southern, there will be a celebration of life for the legendary coach at FAU Stadium.

Sept. 4 vs. Florida
The Owls will begin the season in what many consider to be one of the toughest environments for visiting teams to play at, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, also known as “The Swamp.” This will be the fourth matchup between the Owls and the Gators, with the last game occurring in 2016 when the Owls nearly pulled off an improbable upset in a 20-14 overtime loss. Historically, FAU is 0-3 against Florida.

UF is led by head coach Dan Mullen, and his Gators are coming off an 8-4 record which saw them finish first in the SEC East. However, they lost both the SEC Championship to Alabama and the Cotton Bowl to Oklahoma in a disappointing end to their season.

What to watch for: FAU’s defense was ranked 10th nationally in points allowed last season (17.4), and limiting UF’s offense will be crucial if the Owls want to pull off an upset in Gainesville. Florida also lost many starters from the 2020 squad to the NFL including QB Kyle Trask, safeties Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner, and tight end Kyle Pitts. FAU may look to expose potential weaknesses in the new starters for the Gators.

Sept. 11 vs. Georgia Southern
FAU faces Georgia Southern for the second time in two seasons and will look to avenge last season’s 20-3 road defeat to the Eagles in Statesboro. GSU ran for over 300 yards and overwhelmed the Owls with a ruthless option-heavy offense, something that Chad Lunsford and his Eagles will look to repeat this season.

Georgia Southern finished last season with an 8-4 record, including a 38-3 blowout of Louisiana Tech in the New Orleans Bowl.

What to watch for: Following last season’s tough loss to the Eagles, Coach Taggart and the Owls slowing down the option will be crucial towards securing a victory for their home opener.

Sept. 18 vs. Fordham
This will be the first-ever matchup between FAU and Fordham in football. Fordham’s entire 2020 season was postponed to Spring 2021, where they finished with a 2-1 record. By the time the Rams arrive in Boca, they will have already faced both Oklahoma and Monmouth.

Fordham is led by its junior quarterback, Tim DeMorat. In the Spring 2021 season, DeMorat led the Rams with a quarterback rating of 148.54 and threw for 1049 yards with five touchdowns.

What to watch for: Joe Conlin is entering his third year as Fordham’s head coach. After his first two seasons ending with a 2-10 record in 2018 and a 4-8 record in 2019, Fordham showed development in their shortened spring season with a 2-1 record. FAU will look to stunt the Rams’ progress and should not overlook them for their lack of previous successes.

Sept. 25 vs. Air Force
Continuing their opening string of non-conference games, FAU will travel to Colorado Springs for what will be the second matchup between the programs. Coming out of the Mountain West Conference, Air Force is coming off their 2020 season with a 3-3 record.

FAU defeated Air Force 33-27 in Boca in 2018, as it looks to improve to an overall 2-0 record against the Eagles.

What to watch for: This will be FAU’s second opponent that uses a run-heavy option offense. Air Force ran for over 300 yards per game, averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season, and their defense ranked third in the nation for opponents’ points per game (15). Within the mountains of Colorado, the Owls will have a tough task to stop the Eagles on both sides of the ball.

Oct. 2 vs. FIU
The Shula Bowl returns to Boca this season and will mark the beginning of C-USA play for the Owls this season. In what will be the 20th matchup historically between these two programs, FAU will look to extend their winning streak to five against the Panthers. Last season, the Owls defeated the Panthers 38-19, which marked the most points scored by FAU all season.

FIU is coming off of arguably their worst year under current head coach Butch Davis, finishing the season 0-5 that also included a 19-10 loss at home to FCS opponent, Jacksonville State.

What to watch for: FAU will want to start its conference play on a strong note, and facing FIU at home should give the Owls an extra bit of confidence considering they have not lost to FIU since 2016. FAU exposed FIU’s defense last season, most notably through Posey’s three combined touchdowns. If the Owls have another explosive day on offense, while also limiting FIU’s top playmakers in WR Bryce Singleton and RB D’Vonte Prince, the Owls should continue cruising in the Shula Bowl.

Oct. 9 vs. UAB
In what could be a huge conference matchup for both teams, FAU visits Birmingham to face the reigning C-USA champs in the UAB Blazers. While these two teams did not face each other last season, 2019’s matchup saw FAU annihilate UAB 49-6 in Boca.

FAU owns a 5-2 record against UAB. However, UAB has improved greatly since the last matchup in 2019. UAB finished last season with a 6-3 overall record, including a 4-1 conference record.

What to watch for: This game will be a huge test for Taggart and the Owls, and a win could greatly help their chances in possibly ending up in the C-USA Title game in December. If the Owls want to secure the win in Birmingham, however, stopping the Blazers’ powerful running game will be essential. UAB averaged 200 rushing yards per game and managed 4.9 yards per carry. Despite their leading rusher, Spencer Brown, graduating after the 2020 season, UAB retains two running threats in junior Jermaine Brown Jr. and sophomore DeWayne McBride.

Oct. 23 vs. Charlotte
Continuing C-USA play after the bye week, FAU will travel to Charlotte in an eastern divisional matchup. FAU won the previous two matchups against Charlotte, including last year’s 21-17 victory in Boca, which was also Willie Taggart’s first game as FAU head coach.

Charlotte finished last season with a 2-4 record with both of its wins coming against conference opponents.

What to watch for: Charlotte struggled for most of its shortened 2020 season, but the team has key starters returning, including QB Chris Reynolds and last season’s leading receiver, Victor Tucker. Last season’s matchup saw Nick Tronti contribute three touchdowns in the close victory, so FAU should expect a tough matchup in Charlotte.

Oct. 30 vs. UTEP
Returning to Boca, the Owls will face off against UTEP for the first time since 2016. This will be the second matchup between the two programs, despite both playing in the same conference.

The Miners finished their shortened 2020 season at 3-5 without a conference win. UTEP also managed only one road win last season, something that FAU will want to capitalize on.

What to watch for: The Miners struggled mightily in C-USA plays last season, something that head coach Dana Dimel and his Miners will look to change this season. Even though UTEP’s record may not impress some, it was the most wins recorded under Dimel in his time since 2018.

Nov. 6 vs. Marshall
Beginning the final month of the regular season, FAU welcomes C-USA rival Marshall to Boca. FAU has struggled against the Thundering Herd in recent years, losing its last three matchups.

However, one thing to consider was that last season’s game against Marshall featured over 30 players being out for FAU due to positive tests and contact tracing. Marshall won 20-9, and the win ultimately gave itself a decisive edge over FAU in the C-USA East standings last season.

What to watch for: With COVID-19 hopefully being a non-factor for the Owls this season, especially against Marshall, a full squad for the Owls may give them the depth to end their three-game skid to the Thundering Herd. Considering that this game may have massive implications on who represents the East division in the C-USA Title game, FAU will look to secure a crucial late-season victory at home.

Nov. 13 vs. Old Dominion
Old Dominion was the only C-USA team to fully cancel their season due to COVID. The last time FAU played ODU was in 2019 when the Owls crushed the Monarchs 41-3.

2019 was a rough year for ODU, going only 1-11. This prompted the firing of then-head coach Bobby Wilder, who was then replaced by Ricky Rahne.

What to watch for: Rahne is entering his first season as a head coach after spending 2014-2018 with Penn State as the passing game coordinator and 2011-2013 with Vanderbilt as the quarterbacks’ coach. After a dismal 2019 season for the program, Rahne will desire to establish his mark on the program in his first season.

Nov. 20 vs. Western Kentucky
Taggart squares off against his alma mater in Western Kentucky for the second time in his career, following his first matchup against the Hilltoppers last season in which the Owls scraped a 10-6 victory.

Western Kentucky finished last season with a 5-7 record overall and lost the LendingTree Bowl to Georgia State 39-21. Despite that, the Hilltoppers managed a winning record within C-USA, going 4-3 in conference play.

What to watch for: Head coach Tyson Helton enters his third season at Western Kentucky in what might be a crossroads position. After a strong 2019 season that saw the Hilltoppers go 9-4, including a bowl win over Western Michigan, his team struggled to carry that momentum into 2020. He and his team will look to rebound after a tough 2020 season, but coming to Boca late in the season will prove to be a tough matchup for Western Kentucky.

Nov. 27 vs. Middle Tennessee
Ending both the string of consecutive home games for FAU and the regular season, the Owls welcome Middle Tennessee to Boca in what may be a deciding factor for placement in the C-USA Title game. The two teams were scheduled to play each other last season, but the game was canceled due to COVID-19. The last matchup between these two came in 2019 when FAU prevailed 28-13.

Despite FAU’s recent success, Middle Tennessee owns a 12-5 record over the Owls historically. Last season, Middle Tennessee endured a tough 3-6 season and finished fifth in C-USA East, only above winless FIU.

What to watch for: FAU will prepare to finish the regular season on a positive note, and a victory over the Blue Raiders will be a proper sendoff to what could be another strong season for the Owls. Middle Tennessee has struggled in the past two seasons, winning only a combined seven games and has also struggled mightily on both sides of the ball.

Eston Parker III is the Photo Editor for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @EstonParker.

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