It’s officially gameday as the FAU Football program starts the season and heads into Gainesville to face the No.13 Florida Gators. I know what the expectation is for this game. On paper, you read that FAU, a part of Conference USA, is going up against a usual college football powerhouse in the University of Florida (UF). You might be thinking, this could be a breeze for the Gators. I would usually say you’re right, as they are ranked No. 13 on the Associated Press’ preseason poll for the season.
However, let’s be positive. I think this can be a very entertaining game to watch and from Florida’s performance last season, they could possibly be vulnerable on both sides of the ball. There’s no better place to take advantage of a team that’s not adjusted than the first game of the season. Why are they vulnerable? Let me indulge you for a bit.
A stat that is incredibly jarring to read is that UF’s defense was “the worst it’s been in a century,” according to Sports Illustrated. They allowed 30.8 points per game, 428 total yards per game, and also gave up 28 passing touchdowns, which was four more than any other SEC school.
Yeah, that’s bad.
How can a team with that horrid defense win eight games? It’s pretty simple actually, the Gators’ offense was one of the best in the country. We’ll go into that later.
What really tanked the defense last season for the Gators was the secondary as they allowed 257.5 passing yards per game. Even though DB Kaiir Elm, very likely a future NFL first-round draft pick, will shut down whoever is on him, there are other players on the defense that need to step up.
This is where FAU comes in.
Do the Work. pic.twitter.com/jXqhgkZbco
— FAU Football (@FAUFootball) September 3, 2021
The Owls have a chance to catch Florida with their tails between its legs and start the game guns blazing and never stop. To beat a team as big as UF, the Owls need to play a perfect game from quarter one to four, and it all starts with QB N’Kosi Perry.
Perry was announced to be the starting quarterback for the Owls last Saturday and brings massive experience, having played with the Miami Hurricanes. He didn’t play spring ball for the Owls, but head coach Willie Taggart saw the graduate student make immense strides through training camp.
In the lead-up to game one, Perry said that his experience will “help tremendously,” and says his teammates will be ready for the moment.
“It’s officially game week now so it’s just making sure the guys know that we got to be locked in at all times,” Perry said. “It’s gonna be a big crowd. There’s nothing we can do about that, we should want a big crowd, it’ll be fun. But, we got to be focused on the task and afterwards, everything will come.”
In the nine games the Owls played last season, they averaged close to 19 points per game where compared to the days of head coach Lane Kiffin, that’s not good despite the COVID-filled season. Against a team like Florida, they need to score way more than their average from 2020.
When it comes to calling plays, Taggart has passed those duties to offensive coordinator Michael Johnson, FAU has confirmed to me. This means we can see a different scheme this time around and hopefully with better quarterback play, it can lead to more success.
“We just got to make sure that we get our game plan down,” Johnson said. “Make sure that we hone in on the little details, the fundamentals, the technique of each and every play, and making sure that we are on top of all of our assignments.”
Perry will have an abundance of weapons at his disposal against the Gators and the two-deep shows who’ll be starting and below them. Starting wide receivers at the top of the depth chat include TJ Chase, Brandon Robinson, and LaJohntay Wester, all guys who have the intangibles to be successful this season. A surprise is the tight end position where we see former WR John Micthell at the top.
This stuck out like a sore thumb as Mitchell is entering his sixth season with the Owls and has always played receiver. Though, Mitchell could be a matchup nightmare for the defensive back that covers TEs as he stands 6’4” and has a good catch radius. He was nursing an injury throughout training camp and was wearing a black jersey, but recently was in a normal red uniform, indicating he’s 100 percent.
Taggart talks about the move from WR for Mitchell and exactly what he brings to the table at tight end.
“He’s a big kid, he’s strong and he’s athletic, he brings in some more athleticism into our tight end room and that can only help us,” Taggart said. “John [Mitchell] has done a great job throughout training camp as he’s come back from injury, he’s another guy that I see each and every day getting better, and you can tell he’s comfortable with his knee now. In the first week of training camp, he was a little hesitant, but now he’s going full speed and now I love seeing him blocking and being physical.”
The chemistry from Perry to Micthell and the other receivers is one to watch in Gainseville. The right side of the offensive line looks different this season as right guard Kamaar Bell and right tackle Chaz Neal, two transfers from Auburn and Florida State respectively, are starting.
Taggart mentioned how just like Perry, Bell and Neal missed spring and still competed and made huge impressions to get the starting nods. The left side of the offensive line will have Marquice Robinson at left tackle, Desmond Noel at guard, and at center will be Nick Weber.
Besides blocking for Perry, they’ll be blocking and creating holes for the running backs which at FAU, it’s a deep room. At the top though is USF transfer Johnny Ford, who amassed over 2000 total purpose yards in his two years with the Bulls. Joining him will be Larry McCammon, Malcolm Davidson, James Charles, and others.
It’s finally here.
🕢 7:30 PM
📺 SEC Network
🏟 Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
📍 Gainesville, FL pic.twitter.com/LGeAezIWY7
— FAU Football (@FAUFootball) September 4, 2021
On the running back room, Taggart praised Ford but also didn’t clearly say if he or someone else will get significant carries. Likely, we’ll see multiple people involved.
“[Johnny Ford] is a good running back. He’s good with the ball in his hands, we got to find ways to get the ball in his hand,” Taggart said. “How am I going to use the running back room? Hand the ball out to them, ask them to block, and hold on to the rock. Get us some YACs [yards after the catch], so whoever is in the game, we expect for them to get the job done or whatever we ask them to do.”
While FAU’s offense is primed for a much better season than last and Florida was bad on defense last year, there are still guys to worry about. Zachary Carter, Brenton Cox, and Ventrell Miller are guys to look out for in the front seven for the Gators.
I mentioned earlier about the Gators offense being explosive and that word might be an understatement. With Kyle Trask at quarterback, he was fourth in Heisman award votes as he threw for over 4200 yards, 43 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. His weapons included TE Kyle Pitts and WRs Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes.
Problem is, all of them are now in the NFL. Which leaves redshirt junior Emory Jones for the Gators.
Jones will make his first start tonight for UF and while we don’t know how prolific of a passer he’ll be, what we do know is how he likes to run a ton. FAU’s defense will have to look out for his running ability, by keeping him in the pocket and forcing him to throw.
With Jones being fairy new in game-time experience, the offense could run through their talented running back room led by Dameon Pierce, Nay’Quan Wright, and Malik Davis.
Mike Stoops steps in his first season as the defensive coordinator for the Owls as he’s coached other big schools like Alabama and Oklahoma. He’ll look to continue the success that FAU has had on defense as last season, they only allowed 17.4 points per game.
“Florida will present a huge challenge for everybody defensively, coach Mullens has done an unbelievable job utilizing his personnel,” Stoops said. “They’ve recruited really well and had one of the more prolific offenses a year ago and how they set up this offense for the new quarterback will be interesting to see, they’ve always utilized some quarterback run game.”
He sees this game as a great opportunity and a test for the players to see where they’re at against a top team.
When looking at the two-deep, there were also some notable nuggets. One is the absence of OLB Chase Lasater who was productive last year for the Owls, where he had 72 total tackles, five for a loss. Taggart confirmed that he will be out against Florida with an injury (which wasn’t disclosed) and that he should be good to go in the home opener against Georgia Southern.
— Zachary Weinberger (@ZachWeinberger) September 2, 2021
Other surprises on the defense include the freshman that will pick up starts Saturday night. Courtney McBride, Evan Anderson, Jaden Wheeler, and Chris Jones are players in the front seven that are freshmen.
Taggart talks about freshmen starting for the Owls and credited how young FAU is on that side of the ball.
“If you go through and look at the entire roster, you see that we have a young team, so a lot of it was not by choice,” Taggart said. “These are young guys that are good football players that earned the right to play and be in a position and we’re excited about it. They’re young, they’re gonna get some experience and continue to get better.”
While the two-deep does show the starters, it obviously doesn’t mean they’re out there the whole time. The depth chart can change at any time. So, while players like Ahman Ross and Akileis Leroy seem like sure-fire starters, they’ll get a bunch of playing time and looks to continue their productions.
This especially goes for Leroy, as in 2019 he totaled 101 tackles, 7.5 sacks with three interceptions. He didn’t play the 2020 season which could be the main factor for not starting.
While people will doubt FAU in this one, I don’t blame them. Though, I think the Owls will surprise people here. While I can’t say the Owls will come out on top in this one, there is a way for the owls to “win” while they take a loss.
Sure, the Owls will probably start 0-1, but if they stay competitive with the Gators through all four quarters, that says a lot about FAU and how they’re built.
FAU will need to start fast if they want to have a chance, but I can see both offenses beginning slowly with a low-scoring first-half. When it gets to the second half, things will pick back up.
I truly think there are some aspects that Stoops and the defense can take advantage of, especially when it relates to Emory Jones, so it’ll be up to N’Kosi Perry and the offense to reciprocate.
However, I can’t choose the Owls to win here. Ultimately, talent and home-field advantage will win over here, but will FAU cover the 23.5 points spread? I can see it, as the Owls will be competitive throughout, with a possibility that Florida trails away in the fourth.
Let’s have fun with this though, if FAU does win, and it’s a big if, it would be the biggest win in the school’s history. Remember, the last time these two teams faced off was in 2015 at the swamp and Florida won by the score of 20-14. Here’s hoping.
Final score prediction: Gators 35 – Owls 24
Photo courtesy of FAU Athletics.