HUNTINGTON — After winning a Conference USA title in Lane Kiffin’s first season as head coach, there were tons of expectations for Florida Atlantic entering the 2018 season.
In addition to having a name-brand head coach, the Owls also had an All-American at running back in Devin Singletary, who was pivotal to that 2017 run to the Conference USA title.
The thought was that Kiffin was building Florida Atlantic into a national brand and the Owls would be in line for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl berth.
No one could have guessed that the Owls would’ve not only been out of the running for a New Year’s Six berth, but out of the running for a bowl game altogether in 2018.
In the end, a 5-7 campaign that featured a 3-5 record in Conference USA, capped by a disappointing home loss to Charlotte in the season finale, sent Florida Atlantic into a downward spiral. As 2019 approaches, there are more questions than answers for Kiffin’s kids.
Singletary declared for the NFL Draft early and fellow running back Kerrith Whyte Jr., a talented back in his own right, is also gone. Wide receiver Jovon Durante also jumped from Kiffin’s ship, leaving the Owls without one of their top targets in the passing game.
The good news is quarterback Chris Robison, who shared C-USA co-Freshman of the Year honors with Marshall’s Isaiah Green, returns after a solid but inconsistent freshman campaign. Should Robison slip up, former Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, a walk-on after his ouster with the Seminoles, is more than ready for the opportunity.
Even with Durante gone, there are some good parts around the quarterback in the receiving corps, with Willie Wright being as good as will be seen within Conference USA.
Up front, the offensive line features returning tackle Brandon Walton, but three of Walton’s colleagues from 2018 are gone, which means the offensive line and running game have to grow together.
Alabama transfer B.J. Emmons is eligible to suit up in 2019 and will bolster the team’s rushing corps while highly touted yet unproven running back Malcolm Davidson is also going to log carries.
Defensively, the Owls have never been dominant, and the loss of several leading contributors on the defensive side gives reason to believe that the 2019 defense will be serviceable but not able to simply win games for Florida Atlantic.
There is a ton of talented youth that Kiffin hopes pans out, but getting to that level may be difficult to come by.
It also seems that Kiffin is signing a new-yet-eligible transfer each week, which can only help the talent level of the team increase.
Linebacker Rashard Smith and cornerback James Pierre are two studs on the defensive side while a bevy of young talent can emerge after a stellar recruiting class.
Just as the schedule worked against the Owls in 2018, it works in their favor in 2019 with all major conference games coming at home.
Those games include divisional battles with Middle Tennessee, Marshall and FIU while another home tilt with West Division contender Southern Miss is also on the slate.
In 2018, the Owls were humbled. That likely means that, in 2019, they will be hungry.
They have the coaching and talent to make a run, but it’s all about chemistry and culture for Florida Atlantic.
It makes the Owls one of Conference USA’s hardest teams to predict.
Come season’s end, however, don’t be surprised if the Owls are again in the Conference USA East Division mix.