After multiple tries, the Florida Atlantic Owls might finally play a football game this weekend. FAU has had contests at Georgia Southern and USF canceled for reasons related to COVID-19 but is set to get the 2020 campaign underway with a conference game against the Charlotte 49ers.
Willie Taggart may be a first-year head coach, but FAU is the reigning Conference USA champion. Last season, FAU tied a school record with 11 wins and won the conference title for the second time in three years under Lane Kiffin, who is now the head coach at Ole Miss. For Taggart and the Owls, their first test of 2020 will be Charlotte.
Last season, the 49ers played in a bowl game for the first time in program history, finishing 7-6. Under second-year head coach Will Healy, Charlotte is off to an 0-1 start after losing in a hard-fought opener to Appalachian State, 35-20. Charlotte also had its scheduled games against North Carolina (Sept. 19) and Georgia State (Sept. 26) canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, although the latter turned out to be a false alarm, as the laboratory read the Panthers' test results incorrectly.
Since Charlotte joined Conference USA in 2015, the road team has won all five of their matchups.
Charlotte at FAU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: FAU -6
When Charlotte Has the Ball
Charlotte has experience at quarterback with Chris Reynolds behind center, but the 49ers did not get off to a great start offensively. Charlotte was held to fewer than 300 yards of total offense in the opener against Appalachian State. Charlotte relies heavily on the running attack and led Conference USA in rushing yards per game last season but has to replace a 1,000-yard back in Benny LeMay.
Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison was the feature back in the opener, going for 87 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Another player that the 49ers will look to get involved is wide receiver Victor Tucker. Although he was relatively quiet in the opener, Tucker finished with more than 1,000 receiving yards last season. Charlotte will look to get him the ball in a variety of ways.
FAU led the nation last season with 33 takeaways last season, but the Owls will be relying on a lot of new faces this year. Gone are the top four tacklers from last season, including linebackers Rashad Smith and Akileis Leroy, who each tallied more than 100 tackles. Leroy was the Swiss Army Knife for the Owls' defense, recording 101 total tackles, 7.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and three interceptions.
Also gone is cornerback Meiko Dotson, who led the nation with nine interceptions last year and is now at Florida State. The Owls do have experience at linebacker and in the secondary. Defensive end Leighton McCarthy tallied six sacks last season. Safety Zyon Gilbert is the leading returning tackler with 48 stops in 2019 to go with a pair of interceptions.
When FAU Has the Ball
The Owls led Conference USA in both scoring and total offense last season, but many of those key pieces are no longer with the program, especially in the passing game. Quarterback Chris Robison unexpectedly left FAU this offseason. Most of his pass-catchers, including tight ends Harrison Bryant and Jon Raine, are also gone. The Owls will turn to redshirt junior Nick Tronti at quarterback and a number of transfers at wide receiver, including D'Marcus Adams, T.J. Chase, and Aaron Young.
Where FAU is strong, however, is the backfield. The Owls have an absolute stable, led by last season's leading rusher Malcolm Davidson. Davidson went for 711 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground in 2019 while averaging seven yards per carry. BJ Emmons and Larry McCammon III are also very good backs. Last season, those two combined for 13 rushing touchdowns.
Charlotte was not particularly good on defense last season, and, so far in 2020, that trend has continued. The 49ers gave up 512 yards and 35 points to Appalachian State in the season opener. However, Charlotte did have four different players hit double digits in tackles against the Mountaineers.
Safety Ben DeLuca tallied 16 tackles and a forced fumble in the loss. Linebacker Tyler Murphy recorded 14 tackles and an interception. The 49ers recorded 36 sacks last season, but leading sack man Markees Watts and defensive tackle Mikel Horton are both questionable for Saturday's contest. Watts totaled 9.5 sacks last season.
Without playing a game yet, it's tough to know what to expect from FAU in its opener, but the Owls have an outstanding group of running backs, and Charlotte's defense is hardly stout. FAU loses quite a bit on defense, but Charlotte didn't exactly impress offensively against Appalachian State in the opener. The 49ers probably wouldn't have hung around as long if not for a 97-yard kickoff return for a score from Aaron McAllister. Charlotte had a solid season in 2019, but FAU is still probably good enough to contend for the Conference USA title again in 2020.
Prediction: FAU 31, Charlotte 21
Podcast: CFB Week 5 Preview + Predictions