It might not be the members of the respective families that many fans are used to seeing, but any Bowden-Kiffin matchup is bound to be good television. Especially when both head coaches —Terry Bowden (Akron) and Lane Kiffin (FAU) — are looking to cap off impressive seasons for their respective teams when they meet in the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl.
In his first season in Boca Raton, Lane Kiffin — with his famed father Monte as his defensive coordinator — has led the Conference USA champion FAU Owls (10-3, 8-0) to their first 10-win season since 2003, when the program was still a member what used to be known as Division I-A (now FCS). With a win on Tuesday, this team would match that year’s team for the most wins (11) in a season in program history. Kiffin inherited a team that won nine games in the previous three seasons combined (3-9 each season) and then added an influx of new talent that brought an energy level back to the program that had been absent since the days of former head coach Howard Schnellenberger (2004-11). Success didn’t come right away, however, as FAU started 0-2 with losses to Navy and Wisconsin by a combined 40 points. But after a loss to Buffalo dropped the Owls to 1-3, Kiffin and company rattled off ;nine straight victories, including a convincing win over North Texas in the Conference USA Championship Game.
Terry Bowden, son of Florida State legend Bobby, leads the Zips (7-6, 6-2 MAC) into the postseason trying to reach eight wins in for only the second time since the mid-1980s. Bowden, who inherited a team in 2012 that had gone 1-11 in each of its previous two seasons, has won five or more games in five straight seasons, a streak not accomplished at the school since the end of the 1970s. Two losses in the first three weeks to Penn State (52-0) and Iowa State (41-14) offered a bad omen, but a three-game winning streak against Bowling Green, Ball State and Western Michigan helped right the ship. A late-season win over Ohio clinched not only bowl eligibility but also the MAC East division crown, which gave the Zips the necessary push into the postseason.
Boca Raton Bowl: Akron vs. Florida Atlantic
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: FAU Stadium (Boca Raton, Fla.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida Atlantic -22.5
Three Things to Watch
1. FAU’s high-octane offense
Highly regarded for his ability to produce strong offenses at Alabama during his tenure as the Tide’s offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin has done just the same in his first year at Florida Atlantic. He has turned the Owls into the top scoring offense in Conference USA and the ninth-best in the FBS, scoring just a shade under 40 points per game. Kiffin has been helped by the significant contributions of sophomore running back Devin Singletary (above, right). Singletary, who has nearly 1,800 rushing yards while averaging 6.5 yards per carry this season, leads the nation with 29 rushing touchdowns. Besides being named Conference USA's MVP, Singletary also became the first AP All-American in FAU history when he was named to the third team. Singletary will have a chance to show those in attendance and who tune into ESPN why he received these accolades when he goes up against an Akron defense that enters this game 99th in the nation against the run (197.2 ypg). Singletary only needs 204 yards to get to 2,000 on the ground.
2. Interception leaders
There is no defense better at turning over its opponents through the air than the two that will meet in this game. At 20 and 19 interceptions, respectively, Florida Atlantic and Akron feature the nation’s two most interception-happy defenses and two of the top 10 in total takeaways. Both teams are led in the category by juniors: the Owls by safety Jalen Young, who enters with six interceptions, and the Zips by Jordan George who comes in with five. In a neutral-site game where momentum could be crucial if the game is close down the stretch, a key interception might just be the play that swings the game.
3. Comeback quarterbacks
Occasionally teams will take advantage of bowl games as an opportunity to get playing time for some of their younger, more up-and-coming players. For those who did not get much on-field action in the regular season, the bowl game is a time for them to show coaches what they can do before spring practice rolls around. The two quarterbacks starting in this game also came out of the bullpen, so to speak, but their time started earlier in the season. For Akron freshman quarterback Kato Nelson, who hardly played in the first six games and did not play at all in three others, has gotten valuable snaps over the last four weeks including in the MAC Championship Game against Toledo. On the Owls’ side, it will be junior quarterback Jason Driskel at the helm. Driskel did not open the season as the starter, but he has played like one ever since he took over the role early, throwing for just under 2,000 yards and adding 13 touchdowns in his 10 starts. This will be an intriguing matchup of quarterbacks who were not the pick to start the year but played well enough to earn the nod down the stretch.
These teams have never met before, so it will be quite interesting to see how they match up when they take the field on Tuesday. We know Florida Atlantic will have its offense ready to go, especially in its home stadium with another opportunity to play in front of a friendly crowd (and undoubtedly some in-state recruits). While Jason Driskel will be playing in his home stadium, this also will be a homecoming game for Akron quarterback Kato Nelson, who graduated from Flanagan High School less than an hour away from FAU Stadium. Both quarterbacks will have a big national stage to shine and will receive plenty of support inside the stadium, so they’ll be ready to go when this game kicks off. Even with the creativity of Monte Kiffin on the defensive side of the ball for the Owls, it would not be a surprise to see points put up early and often in this matchup. But FAU has lost just once at home and that was back on Sept. 1. Lane Kiffin and the Owls close out their season with another convincing W.
Prediction: Florida Atlantic 41, Akron 27
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Photos courtesy of @FAU_Football)