The 2022 college football season kicks off under the lights in Boca Raton on Saturday night when the Florida Atlantic Owls welcome the Charlotte 49ers to FAU Stadium.
The 49ers will be opening their fourth season under Will Healy and are looking to right the ship after a pair of losing campaigns. Healy led Charlotte to a 7-6 record and an appearance in the Bahamas Bowl in 2019, but the 49ers have mustered just seven more wins in the past two seasons, going 2-4 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and then posting a 5-7 record in 2021.
Meanwhile, this will be Willie Taggart's third season at the helm of the Owls, who likewise went 5-7 in 2021 after finishing with four straight double-digit losses, coming by an average of 18.5 points per game. Taggart's 5-4 record in the COVID-condensed 2020 campaign is his only winning season since 2018, as he went 9-12 in less than two full seasons at Florida State after a 25-12 record between 2015 and '17 at USF and then Oregon.
Florida Atlantic has won each of the last three meetings with Charlotte and five of seven overall. One intriguing key to watch will be whether this game remains close down the stretch, as both of the 49ers' victories in this series have come by a combined eight points (28-23 in 2016, 27-24 in 2018), while four of FAU's five wins have been of the double-digit variety.
Charlotte at Florida Atlantic
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 27 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Florida Atlantic -7
When Charlotte Has the Ball
Offense was a focal point for Charlotte in 2021. The 49ers went 5-2 in the seven games in which they scored at least 30 points, but they managed just 14.6 points per game in their remaining five losses.
Quarterback Chris Reynolds was among the top passers in Conference USA last season, and the redshirt senior will aim to use his experience — and that of the skill position players around him — to bring the 49ers' offense to even greater heights in 2022. Reynolds threw for 26 touchdowns in 2021 — third among his Conference USA peers — and rushed for four more, with multiple TD passes in eight of his 11 starts. He'll look to post better numbers than in his last game against Florida Atlantic, a 38-9 loss back on Oct. 21 when he completed 22 of 31 passes for 219 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
All three of the 49ers' top receivers from last season are back, and this trio combined with Reynolds to help Charlotte produce a passing attack that ranked in the top 50 nationally. Grant DuBose and Elijah Spencer tied for the team lead with six touchdowns apiece, and DuBose led the team with 892 receiving yards — good for seventh in C-USA — with Victor Tucker not far behind at 639. The 49ers' offense was a bit less potent on the ground, averaging 150 rushing yards per game, which was slightly below the FBS midpoint of 161.5 ypg. Calvin Camp and Shadrick Byrd combined for 101.5 rushing yards per game in 2021, and that duo will likewise be returning with hopes of building on their combined total of seven rushing touchdowns. They managed just 57 yards on the ground in last season's meeting with Florida Atlantic.
The Owls' defense allowed 409.3 yards per game last season to finish among the bottom 40 nationally, but they did well to limit opponents on the scoreboard to just 25.8 points per game. That was just a tinge better than the national average of 26.3 ppg. Where FAU's D struggled mightily, however, was in making plays behind the line of scrimmage, specifically, specifically sacks. The Owls totaled just 16 sacks in 12 games, which tied them for 115th nationally. That also tied them for 12th in the conference with, you guessed it, Charlotte.
When Florida Atlantic Has the Ball
Just as Reynolds returns with plenty of experience, so too does N'Kosi Perry to lead the Owls on offense. The four-year signal-caller who started his career a bit further south at Miami played in all 12 games for FAU last season. He finished with 20 touchdown passes to rank fourth in Conference USA and averaged 230.2 passing yards per game (sixth). In fact, Perry's and Reynolds' numbers in 2021 were very similar across the board.
LaJohntay Wester, Perry's primary target in 2021, will look to pick up right where he left off. Wester led the team in receptions (65) and yards (702) and tied for the lead in touchdown catches (four), while also serving as the primary punt returner (6.8 ypr). Meanwhile, Johnny Ford — a transfer from USF who starred at Miami High School — supplied almost exactly half of FAU's production on the ground, finishing with 831 rushing yards. He'll be working behind what projects to be an extremely veteran offensive line, a rotation featuring graduate transfer Brendan Bordner (Rutgers) at left tackle, redshirt sophomore Dorian Hinton (Middle Tennessee transfer) at left guard, and redshirt senior Chaz Neal (Florida State transfer) at right tackle, along with redshirt sophomore Dorian Hinton at left guard and redshirt senior Nick Weber at center.
Charlotte's defense struggled mightily in 2021, finishing with just 4.3 tackles for a loss per game — the lowest rate in Conference USA — and the aforementioned 16 sacks to tie with FAU for the second-lowest total in the conference. With those difficulties making plays in the backfield, the 49ers allowed their namesake (or more) in points in each of their last two losses of the season, routs courtesy of Marshall and Old Dominion. All told, Charlotte surrendered 42.3 points per game over its last six of the 2021 season, not surprisingly going just 1-5 during that span.
Both of these defenses didn't excel in making plays behind the line of scrimmage in 2021. With avoiding negative plays not a huge concern for either side, expect these experienced offenses to have little trouble making big plays and finding the end zone. But give the advantage to the home team in this Conference USA season opener.
Prediction: Florida Atlantic 38, Charlotte 27
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.