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College Football Preview 2018: 24. Florida Atlantic Owls

24. Florida Atlantic Owls

Lane Kiffin has this team playing at incredible level, but a tough road schedule could halt a New Year's Six bid

Offense: Head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles engineered a lethal
offensive attack in 2017, carried heavily by the nation's sixth best rush offense. Briles is gone, leaving Kiffin to replace him with 25-year-old Charlie Weis Jr. Weis Jr. is the youngest offensive coordinator in modern college football history, but will have plenty to play with.

The face of that sixth best rushing offense was Devin Singletary, who is back for his junior season after managing 1,920 yards and 32 touchdowns a year ago. Singletary will be leaned on heavily once more and if he gets enough usage, he could be a dark horse for the Heisman. Another name to watch at RB is Alabama transplant B.J. Emmons. He got forced out of an unbelievable backfield at 'Bama, but could be very good against Group of Five competition.

The quarterback position is more unsettled, with two main candidates vying for the starting spot. De'Andre Johnson appears to be the slight favorite, and he certainly has the more fanfare. Johnson was supposed to be the future for Florida State at the position before video emerged of him assaulting a woman at a bar. He moved on to EMCC (home of the Netflix series "Last Chance U") before arriving at FAU, before dealing with blood clots in his throwing arm last season. Now healthy, the big-armed gunslinger could have a breakout campaign. Oklahoma transfer Chris Robison is the only serious threat to unseat Johnson.

Wide receiver should be a strength for Florida Atlantic, as the explosive Willie Wright returns. Wright had 56 receptions for 657 yards a year ago, and proved to be quite the top cover. He will open the year as Johnson's go-to target but big things are expected of junior Jovon Durante. Durante is a transfer from West Virginia who impressed the coaching staff last year on the practice squad. Senior DeAndre McNeal should also find a way to contribute.

Up front, the Owls will deal with the losses of two All-Conference performers, but this could still be a strength. Senior Reggie Bain gives them a veteran at the ultra-important left tackle spot, and Tulane graduate transfer Junior Diaz will likely over at center. Right tackle Brandon Walton is also returning for his junior season.

Weis Jr. remains unproven on the major collegiate ranks, but with Kiffin's input, this unit should still be pretty scary. Singletary is one of the most underrated stars in the entire sport, and if Johnson fulfills his vast potential, this group could improve on last year's 40.6 PPG. 

Defense: Kiffin will also start anew on defense, with new coordinator Tony Pecocaro coming in from conference foe Southern Miss. Pecocaro won't have a complete rebuild on his hands; FAU returns a big chunk of last year's D, which was third in the conference and 34th nationally in allowing 22.7 PPG. 

On the defensive line, senior defensive end Hunter Snyder will lead a fierce group. Snyder managed six sacks in '17, and will be aided by senior tackle Steven Leggett and freshly signed JUCO transfer Charles Cameron. Also coming in from the junior college ranks is Marcel Southall, who can play multiple positions.

Pecocaro is known as an aggressive playcaller and loves to blitz, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him let junior outside linebacker Rashad Smith loose. Smith looked like a natural edge rusher last season, with six sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Paired with senior middle linebacker, Areez Al-Shaair, Smith should have a huge year. Al-Shaair is not 100 percent after having off-season surgery on a nagging elbow, but when healthy is an All-Conference USA performer, with 147 tackles in 2017.

The secondary is physical and ball-hawking, playing perfectly into Pecocaro's style. Senior safety Jalen Young is a stud; the veteran had seven interceptions last season and has caught NFL scouts eyes. Cornerbacks Shelton Lewis and Chris Tooley are both returning after stellar campaigns a year ago. Lewis is a natural cover corner who showed some real versatility last year. 

There are some losses and Al-Shaair's health will be a huge factor, but the Owls look really strong on the defensive side of the ball. Pecocaro's preferred style seems be a really good fit for the personnel on the roster, and there is some veteran experience. If they can improve at stopping the pass, which they should, this could be among the stronger groups in the C-USA.

Special Teams: With their placekicker and punter leaving, FAU now is likely to turn to unproven redshirt frosh Vladimir Rivas. Rivas will have to fend off a number of walk-ons Kiffin and staff brought on. Kick returner Kerrith Whyte returned one for a score last season, and should still be a threat.

Lane Kiffin and his overall bravado tend to rub people the wrong way, but I don't think there is any denying what he has done so far in Boca Raton. He has elevated the talent level tremendously, evolved them into a C-USA power and overall, made them nationally relevant. With this offense, anything is possible, but a tough schedule does await. Road non-conference meetings with Oklahoma and UCF will be incredibly tough, as will in-conference roadtrips to North Texas and Middle Tennessee. This is the clear-cut favorite in the conference in my opinion, but that schedule is about as tough as you can get as a Group of Five school. If like them to win the conference, but crashing the New Year's Six as the GO5 representative? Not this year.

Team Projections 
Projected Record: 10-3 (7-1 C-USA,  C-USA Title)
C-USA East Finish: 1st
Offensive MVP: RB Devin Singletary
Defensive MVP: S Jalen Young
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Jovon Durante

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