The Boca Raton Bowl between the FAU Owls and SMU Mustangs is a study in two different dynamics. The two programs involved are both examples of how one’s conference status can improve. These programs also had head coaches this season, who needed to be humbled before they could become better.
Let’s start with the fact that both teams have climbed the ladder in the world of major college football (FBS) conferences. Seven years ago, in 2012, FAU was in the Sun Belt and SMU was in Conference USA. Today, the Owls are in Conference USA and the Mustangs are in the American Athletic Conference. They have both risen in the ranks and have not suffered all the while.
Both teams carry 10 wins into the Boca Raton Bowl game on Saturday, Dec. 21. FAU won its conference title Saturday, while SMU – though not winning the AAC – finished 10-2 despite having to play Memphis and Navy on the road. SMU was able to go 10-0 in its other games. Imagine what could happen for the Ponies next year, when Memphis and Navy both have to come to suburban Dallas.
FAU and SMU were both given a boost a decade ago by veteran coaches who had succeeded in other places.
FAU made bowls in 2007 and 2008 under the legendary Howard Schnellenberger, who created the Miami juggernaut in the early 1980s before handing over the program to Jimmy Johnson. Schnellenberger enabled the Owls to gain national attention. The program lost steam at the end of his tenure, but it established a foothold and was able to move up the conference ladder.
SMU, beginning in 2009, made four straight bowl games under June Jones, who had led the 2007 Hawaii team to the Sugar Bowl, a historic achievement for the Rainbow Warriors. It was Jones, more than anyone else, who truly lifted the cloud of gloom from the SMU program since its NCAA “death penalty” sentence in the 1980s.
SMU’s bowl appearance in 2009 was the Ponies’ first since the death penalty in 1987. Jones’s ability to make four straight bowl games firmly planted the idea that SMU could once again be a consistent winner.
Neither FAU nor SMU have reached the same heights as UCF or Memphis, the two schools which have won the Group of Five championship the past three years, but they are much more prominent than they were seven years ago.
Their head coaches from the 2019 regular season aren’t more prominent than they used to be, but they have certainly benefited from a downward move in the coaching profession.
Lane Kiffin needed this job at FAU. He needed to step out of the Power Five pressure cooker and learn how to handle a program on a smaller scale, removed from the withering spotlight. Kiffin often did things at USC which reflected a childlike, even impish, behavior. He needed to show he could take a job seriously.
At FAU, he did that. Now, as he heads off to Ole Miss, Kiffin is older and wiser, having paid some dues instead of failing upward as he did when he moved from Tennessee to USC a decade ago.
Sonny Dykes coached Jared Goff at California. Cal’s offenses were great, but the Golden Bear program struggled. Dykes was not going to get better in the Pac-12. He needed to move down to a Group of Five program from the Power Five conferences. SMU – with Texas transfer Shane Buechele slinging the ball around the yard as his quarterback – has given Dykes an ideal landing spot.
The coach and the program seem to ideally fit each other at Southern Methodist. Dykes’ late father, Spike, coached quite successfully in the state of Texas. Spike made the 1995 Cotton Bowl at Texas Tech just before the old Southwest Conference was dissolved. Sonny Dykes is very comfortable in the Lone Star State, with a former Texas Longhorn pitching the pigskin around the ballpark.
FAU and SMU have risen in the conference pecking order, under coaches who made downward moves and realized there was a need for them to reset their careers. Upward mobility and downscale success form two of the many stories attached to the 2019 Boca Raton Bowl.
Coaches and rosters finalized for East-West Shrine Bowl
The NFL and the newly-renamed East-West Shrine Bowl are finalizing not only their player rosters, but their coaching staffs for next Saturday’s game in St Petersburg, FL.
Late this week, the longest running college all-star game, the East West Shrine Bowl, named its head coaches, both of whom have ties to the Tampa Bay Area.
Bucs inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell will coach one of the teams, while former Buccaneers and current Falcons tight end coach, Ben Steele will be in charge of the other.
Caldwell, who came to the Buccaneers in Bruce Arians’ first season has been in the NFL for a total of 11 years and had previously served as the assistant head coach and linebackers coach for the New York Jets under Todd Bowles for 4 seasons.
Steele, who has coached in the NFL for seven seasons reunited with Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in Atlanta after previously having been his tight end coach in Tampa Bay last year.
Bob Roller, executive director of the East-West Shrine Bowl, said in a statement about the coaching selections,
“We’re very excited to have Mike Caldwell and Ben Steele as head coaches for our East-West Shrine Bowl all-stars,” said Bob Roller, executive director of the East-West Shrine Bowl. “Ben was a coordinator for our 2019 game and both coaches have ties to the Tampa/St. Pete area. They will lead two strong staffs of NFL assistant coaches that will be invaluable to our players as they begin their own journey to the NFL”
Meanwhile, the rosters do have some Florida flair, as several noteworthy names will be on the East team. That’s led by speedy UCF running back Adrian Killins, Gators wide receiver Freddie Swain and USF tight end Mitchell Wilcox. On the East defensive squad, FAU linebacker Rashad Smith, Miami linebacker Shaq quarterman and UCF defensive back Neville Clark are part of the roster.
This will be the 95th playing of the East-West Shrine Bowl and it boasts 71 Pro Football Hall of Famers that have played in their game. And, they also had more than 300 players who were on an NFL roster for Week 1 last year that have played in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
The game also announced that there will be four legendary mentors working with the players in practices later this week in St Pete. Those include: Hall of Fame offensive lineman Will Shields, Super Bowl Champion defensive end Willie McGinest, as well as, long time safety Bobby Taylor and long time wide receiver Amani Toomer.
The game will be played at Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball Tampa Bay Rays and televised nationally on the NFL Network at 3 p.m., Eastern Time next Saturday.
New Year’s Day has prominent teams in Florida Bowls
As the new year begins, traditional college football bowl games will be taking place. And even though there are no Florida teams battling on New Year’s Day, there are two prominent bowl games in the state.
First, two of college football’s “Blue Bloods” play Wednesday afternoon, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Michigan Wolverines will do battle in the VRBO Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
Both programs come off of disappointing end to their regular-season, as they both lost to their rivals. Alabama dropping a wild 48 – 45 game in the Iron Bowl to Auburn and Michigan losing badly 56-27 to Ohio State and their finale at home.
The Tide are without All American caliber quarterback Tua Tagovailoa who suffered a fractured hip late in the year. However, Nick Saban has arguably the best wide receiving corps in all of college football to compensate for Tagovailoa’s absence.
Michigan has perennially under-achieved under coach Jim Harbaugh, but would love nothing better than to score a head-to-head win against Bama in this one.
Meanwhile across I-4 in Tampa, the 25th playing of the Outback Bowl will take place and it’s a first-time matchup between the SEC Auburn Tigers and the big Ten’s Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Gophers were Darlings of the Big Ten late in the year that they got to 9 – 0 for only the second time in program history before faltering with losses to Iowa and Wisconsin which knock them out of the Big Ten championship game. Their coach P.J. Fleck is the Big Ten coach of the year and has done an amazing job of making Minnesota nationally relevant.
As for the Tigers, we mentioned the victory over Alabama which was particularly sweet for Coach Gus Malzahn, who has been under fire in recent years for not living up to success earlier in the 2010s. Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix, the son of the former Auburn star Patrick Nix, leads a high-powered attack that will look to finish the season on a winning note. The Tigers lost their three biggest games of the year to Florida, LSU, and Georgia, but wins over Alabama and Minnesota will help.
The Gophers have had their most important season since they played in the Rose Bowl in 1962 and would love nothing better than to upset the Tigers in this one.