2017: FAU Preview

North Texas is the best team in CUSA right now. We can write that confidently knowing that CUSA is a flawed league with some really good talent, coaches, and teams mixed in with the worst of the worst. The very best — NT — are but a season removed from sub .500 seasons and so there are no airs of superiority to put on. NT is the best because they have worked like they are not the best.

This week’s CUSA GOTW matchup pits two of 2016’s also-rans in a sneak peak at a potential 2017 CUSA Title game.

Florida Atlantic has been on everyone’s G5 topic list ever since Lane Kiffin brought his media circus to town. CUSA Media days were dominated by his presence and the early CUSA media attention was on Boca Raton. After a slow start FAU is now a surprising 2-0 in league play and 3-3 on the year. While the competition is not overly impressive, the Owls have played the requisite payday game / FCS combination and come out relatively healthy and 1-1. They mixed in Navy (to North Texas’ SMU) and were unimpressive after an early hot start.

Wins against MTSU and ODU on the road were very intriguing, especially the rout of the Monarchs in a 58-28 domination. They do it primarily via the ground game, with RB Devlin Singletary (5’9″ 200 lbs SO) leading the attack with 106 rushes for 686 yards and 11 TDs. He’s managed four straight 100+ yard games, including 156 vs Buffalo, 133 against Middle, and 194 last week vs ODU.

He is shifty, patient, and tough to tackle. His best game was probbaly the 4-TD effort against MTSU in which he put on a show of breaking tackles, finding space, and agility. He’s built like UTSA’s Jalen Rhodes (5’9″ 195) but runs bigger, like a Spencer Brown from UAB.

FAU boasts a big offensive line suited to their type of game, which has much in common with Baylor, Chad Morris, and new Alabama. That is to say they like to power run and throw it deep using RPOs and max protection. It is a philosophy as old as the pass game itself and it is all the rage.

Thanks to the power run game, FAU is great inside the 40 and really helped their statistical cause by putting 8 TDs on ODU last week. They are good and efficient, but not overly explosive (at least, not at the Jeff Wilson/Jalen Guyton level).

Defensively they create turnovers and have been fortunate in this area.

Defending FAU

We begin with defense as this is the question on everyone’s mind: Can North Texas stop the powerful FAU rush game led by an offensvie genius. The good news is that NT has been solid against the run game vs pretty much every opponent from UAB, Iowa, to UTSA. Devin ‘Motor’ Singletary is the most powerful back they will have faced and the disciplined tackling that the coaching staff mentioned this week will be key.

If this game comes down to NT stopping a powerful FAU rush in short yardage then the game favors the Owls.

They get lots of yards on the ground on first and second downs, and that makes it easy to convert a shorter third. North Texas has been really great on second down, but weak on third. If NT can slow the rushing attack enough to force a pass — even a 3rd and medium — then it will pit FAU’s weakness against North Texas’ weakness.

FAU First down YPC: 6.24
NT First down rush defense YPC: 3.72

FAU has been poor in the pass game to the point that working on it over the bye was a point of emphasis:

“Guys practiced well, hopefully we’re fixing what I believe are our two major issues, which is tackling on the back end on defense and the passing game on offense. Hopefully we’re improving those, because as I told them today, if you’re going to be a championship team, championship teams eventually get exposed by good teams if you don’t fix your issues.”

Jason Driskel has been better on the ground than through the air, and does most of his throwing damage on first and second downs. Even then, he’s thrown 25 of his 86 passes when up by 14 points. This team really wants to run. He can scramble well, and has picked up 11 first downs with his legs and has 3 20+ yard rushes.

Kiffin and Briles like to mix things up with some zone reads for Jason Driskel and he killed Old Dominion with that last week. If NT can do a better job of tackling — from what I can tell, ODU is very poor in this area — NT should limit the explosiveness in this area.

Attacking the Owls

Five secondary players have an interception. While fumble recoveries are a function of luck, interceptions are less so.

Defensively, FAU’s numbers are skewed a bit by the Navy attack that scorched them early. Still, they are allowing at least 4.73 yards per rush on every down and situation that is runnable (the exception being 3rd and 10+). North Texas is explosive rushing on 1st and 2nd downs averaging 5.5 yards per attempt and 11 20+ yard rushes and 7 TDs.

NT’s Air Raid has been dangerous through the air on 2nd downs boasting a YPA of 9+ with a rating of 179, 6 TDs (against 0 INTS) and 9 25+ yard receptions. Meanwhile FAU has defended 2nd down well, grabbing 6 of their 10 INTs then and only allowing 54.8% of completions.

FAU’s Defensive Line is smaller than the UAB, USM, and UTSA which will be a welcome. The linebackers are led by MLB Azeez Al-Shaair (6’2″ 228 JR). CBs Raekwon Williams (5’11” 185 SR) and Shelton Lewis (6’0″ 185 JR) will initially draw the assignment of slowing down the potent NT air attack. Chris Tooley (5’11” 178 SO) has three INTs.

North Texas is the best rushing attack FAU has faced in conference and FAU has allowed 5.28 yards per carry to two of the league’s mediocre rushing attacks.

North Texas probably feels they can throw with success against the FAU defense, but with the league’s best back they probably go straight at the Owl’s weaknesses and use Guyton/Smiley et al to keep them honest.

Elsewhere

The advanced numbers like FAU

S&P: 61
NT: 65 (LW 80)
COW: 42%

SRS: 79
NT: 64 (LW 74)

FPI: 81
NT: 91 (LW 93)
COW: 28.8%

Sagarin: 91
NT: 102 (LW 80)
NT 9.24 dogs

FEI: 73
NT: 72 (LW 83)
COW: 41.1%

Massey: 98
NT: 92 (LW 105)
COW: 41%

COW = Chance of Winning

Overall

Florida Atlantic boasts a national championship winning coach, while NT has a national championship winning player (Seth Littrell). This is probably one of the few match ups where NT does not have the better staff, but they definitely have the better team.

The near-loss put enough of a scare in North Texas to keep them sharp. There were plenty of moments to improve on and yet another challenge against a tough opponent should keep NT on their toes and prevent a let-down.

Still, this is college football and anything can happen. FAU has been great in the last couple of weeks but the competition has been subpar. MTSU is not the team of two years ago and ODU starts a 17-year old (last night’s game notwithstanding). NT is the best offense in the league and has answers for most counters. The defense is improving enough that FAU will not be able to dominate as they have.

NT’s offense can strike quickly enough that a team that dominates the ball does not have the clear advantage. FAU’s defense is not as good as UTSA’s or USM’s though this is a more opportunistic secondary. While Mason Fine’s interception rate is supremely low, he can be forced into a bad throw when forced out of the pocket*. UTSA only grabbed one, but FAU will take advantage. The good news is that NT has Jeff Wilson. There are too many weapons on the green side for FAU to deal with.

MGN Prediction: NT 34 FAU 25

* That Mike Lawrence throw should have been intercepted.