Even though his team is getting set to go for a second Conference USA Championship Game win in the last three years, the bigger story continues to be about, where FAU coach Lane Kiffin may end up after Saturday?
First, the Owls will play host to UAB Saturday afternoon in Boca Raton for the C-USA Championship. FAU clinched the East Division and the hosting of the game by defeating Southern Miss Saturday night, which gave them a 7 – 1 Conference record.
The 2019 version of the Owls is not nearly as explosive, as his last two teams have been. Those featured the school’s all-time leading rusher and the man that scored more touchdowns than any other FBS player in 2017 – 18, running back Devin Singletary. Singletary was taken in the NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills and has already made an impact on their great 9-1 start this season.
FAU has been led by quarterback Chris Robinson, who is solid but not spectacular, and an opportunistic defense the currently leads the nation in takeaways.
So that’s the storyline for the game on Saturday.
However, the more intriguing aspect of Kiffin successfully leading his team back to the cusp of another championship in their conference is: that he may end up in a much more prominent job, as soon as early next week.
That’s because the former head coach at USC, who was also briefly at both the Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers, is apparently in demand again. This would be particularly for a return to the Southeastern Conference with perhaps, the Arkansas Razorbacks.
USA today had a correspondent report Monday that Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek met with Kiffin in person in Boca Raton on Sunday about their vacancy. The Hogs fired second-year coach Chad Morris earlier in November, as he had failed to win a single Southeastern Conference game in his season and a half.
On Tuesday, Kiffin participated in the Conference USA media call for the championship game and the final question indirectly asked about job opportunities that are currently open, his name being mentioned, and how Kiffin handles that distraction with his team,
“I’ve never addressed that and, maybe I’m wrong,” Kiffin said on the call.
“No matter where I’ve been or what’s going on, I’ve never addressed that with the team. To the team it wouldn’t really matter, I wouldn’t think. It more obviously for recruits and stuff, you deal with that. It is what it is and if you are getting mentioned for a job, it’s usually because you’re winning. It’s a product of your coaches and players doing really well.”
Wondering about the specific connection to Arkansas? Well, Kiffin’s father, and legendary former Buccaneers defensive coordinator in the 1990s-2000s, Monte Kiffin, was the Arkansas defensive coordinator in the late 1970s when Lane was a youngster.
Kiffin is also the former offensive coordinator at Alabama, including helping the Tide win a National Championship in 2015. And, it’s believed that Cowboys owner, Arkansas alum and it’s most influential donor, Jerry Jones, is a big fan of Kiffin’s to take the job.
Kiffin would stand to make over $5 million per season with the Hogs, which FAU can never come close to matching.
So, that’s the backdrop for the game Saturday, where FAU looks to make more C-USA history.
And their coach? He could be “history,” too.
FAU bowl match up with SMU has intrigue
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.
Ole Miss hires Lane Kiffin after FAU title game win
It didn’t take long after FAU’s rout of UAB in the Conference USA Championship Game for the “Lane Train” to depart Boca Raton for Mississippi.
Shortly after the post game festivities were done on the field at FAU Stadium, Ole Miss made official what had been reported Friday night that Kiffin is their new head coach:
OFFICIAL | @Lane_Kiffin named head football coach at Ole Miss
— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) December 7, 2019
First, Kiffin’s Owls had little to no trouble with UAB, as they broke out to a 35 – 6 halftime lead and never looked back. Sophomore quarterback Chris Robison threw three touchdown passes and FAU also blocked a punt, scooped it up and ran it in for another touchdown, as they built the large halftime advantage.
UAB did not muster a hundred yards of offense until the fourth quarter of the game and by then, the issue was settled. It’s the Owls second Conference USA title win in three seasons under Kiffin.
“I couldn’t be more excited to welcome Coach Kiffin to the Ole Miss family,” Carter said. “As we entered this process, we were looking for energy, innovativeness and a program builder who could excite our student-athletes and fans. Coach Kiffin checked every box and is a home run for our program. I look forward to locking arms with him to take Ole Miss Football to a championship level.”
Kiffin returns to the SEC, where he was formerly the offensive coordinator from 2014 – 16 at Alabama under Nick Saban. He also was the University of Tennessee head coach for the 2009 season going 7 – 6. Kiffin left the Vols controversially after just one year to coach at Southern Cal from 2010 – 13. He was fired in the middle of his fourth season with the Trojans.
As we wrote Friday night, a report in Mississippi surfaced that Ole Miss officials had been in Boca Raton to meet with Kiffin on Thursday night and offered him the job. That obviously turned out to be correct.
Ole Miss is looking to rebuild quickly and an attempt to challenge Alabama, LSU and Auburn. The Rebels went just 4 – 8 this past season firing former player and assistant, Matt Luke at the end of the year.
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