FAU defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni, however, can’t wait for Saturday’s Conference USA championship game against North Texas – a game billed by FAU assistant coach Eric Mathies as the Owls’ final exam.
“Coach Mathies, D-line coach, always talks about, this is our final exam,” said Taleni, referring to Saturday’s Conference USA championship game against North Texas. “So after a long season, after a long 11-12 games we can’t make any excuses now. This is a championship game. This is a huge game to really test ourselves, and to come out and execute really well.”
FAU is playing postseason football for the first time since 2008. Between the C-USA title game and the bowl game that will follow, by the time 2017 ends the Owls will double the amount of postseason games they’re played on the FBS level, going from two to four.
Saturday will be their first-ever appearance in a conference title game – a game that FAU players say is far more important than the yet-to-be-determined bowl game that will follow.
“Yeah, the bowl game’s a big deal, but I want the ring,” tackle Reggie Bain said. “You get remembered for the Conference championship more than you get remembered for the bowl game. I’d rather get the conference before the bowl game.”
Senior running back Buddy Howell concurs.
“Conference title game – that’s what we preach,” Howell said. “You could win six games and it’s a bowl game, but at the end of the day we’ve been undefeated since – for how many games? A conference championship, that’s something that most people don’t forget. The conference won’t forget because then you’re going to be the defending champions, stuff like that, next year. And that’s something that these guys have been looking for for a long time. A long time.”
To answer to Howell’s question, FAU enters the C-USA title game winners of eight straight, including a 69-38 throttling of North Texas on Oct. 21. The Owls led that game 24-0 after one quarter and 41-7 at the half. By the time the final whistle blew, FAU rolled to 804 total yards – setting a Conference USA record.
Throughout their undefeated run through Conference USA, FAU players used anger and revenge for past losses as motivation on a weekly basis. On Saturday, FAU won’t be the team out for revenge. North Texas can check that motivational box.
But FAU is still looking for respect, and two comments out of Denton, Texas, give the Owls are reason to believe they have yet to earn it.
After the October loss, Mean Green coach Seth Littrell attributed the loss to North Texas being overconfident.
Earlier this week, quarterback Mason Fine told the Denton Record-Chronicle that North Texas didn’t enter the first game against FAU with the right mindset.
“FAU is a great team,” Fine said. “Don’t get me wrong, but you give us another shot, especially with the way we have been playing, and there will be a different outcome.”
That’s not sitting too well with FAU players, who Kiffin said practiced with a playoff-like intensity this week.
“People still don’t respect us,” center Antonyo Woods said. “It’s obvious. Teams still talk bad about us. Teams still say we’re just getting lucky, all that stuff. That just gives us more reasons to go out there and show people we are truly a different team and a truly dominant team.”
North Texas (9-3, 7-1) hasn’t lost since being blown out by FAU – a streak of five consecutive wins.
Earlier this week FAU coach Lane Kiffin referred to the Mean Green as a Top 25-caliber team in a dangerous position.
“When you’re the underdog, a lot of times it’s easier because there’s no pressure on you,” Kiffin said. “You do kind of take a lot risks, take a lot of chances because the expectation is you are the underdog for a reason. I actually like playing better from that role.”
FAU is decidedly not the underdog in this one, entering the game an 11.5 point favorite in the battle of two teams that didn’t receive any first-place votes in the Conference USA preseason poll.
“Everybody counted us out,” Howell said. “Now we’re here. So hey, it’s time to show them what we are about.”
KEYS TO THE GAME: FAU (9-3, 8-0) vs. North Texas (9-3, 7-1)
Key for the Owls: Contain Mason Fine. FAU did a good job of limiting Fine in the first meeting, holding him to 283 yards and two TDs. The Owls picked off Fine twice, and 193 of those passing yards came in the second half, after the game was already decided. Fine’s 27 passing touchdowns leads Conference USA. With UNT leading rusher Jeffery Wilson ruled out with an ankle injury, keeping Fine in check should bring a conference title.
Key for the Mean Green: As always, the game plan starts with stopping Devin Singletary. Aside from that, the Mean Green need a fast start. In the first meeting North Texas fumbled on its first possession and threw an interception on its second. By the time the first quarter ended, FAU already had an insurmountable lead. The Mean Green can’t let that happen again.
Slow Play: One way to combat FAU’s ultra-high tempo offense is to slow it down whenever possible. Kiffin says in recent weeks teams have looked for ways to keep FAU from getting into gear. “Anytime that we sub, they jog someone [onto the field] as slow as they can to try to slow us down. The refs hold (the ball). That’s a lot of respect to these players that people are just playing to try to keep the game close.”
Tight Spot: With Harrison Bryant, who caught seven passes for 69 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting against UNT, likely sidelined for a second consecutive game, FAU will continue to mix and match at the tight end spot. John Raine’s been battling an injury, but Kiffin is hopeful he’ll play. If the Owls need a pass catcher, D’Anfernee McGriff is beginning to emerge as a threat. When it comes to blocking, 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt senior Dustin Bowens is playing the best football of his career. “I can hide behind him,” Singletary said. “He’s always clearing them out of the way. He’s always finishing blocks, no matter what, so that’s definitely fun.”
Wide Out: Wide receiver DeAndre McNeal started the season strong but he’s virtually disappeared in Conference USA play. His absence in last week’s victory over Charlotte wasn’t performance based. McNeal suffered an injury during practice and didn’t make the trip north. He didn’t participate in drills during practices early this week either. McNeal did not catch a pass in the first meeting with North Texas.
Double Digits: With a win on Saturday, the Owls’ tenth of the season, Lane Kiffin will have needed only one season to move into second place alone on FAU’s career wins list. A win would mark only the second time in program history that the Owls achieved double-digit wins. The Owls won 11 games en route to the FCS semifinals in 2003.
Championship Facts: This is the first appearance for either North Texas or FAU in the championship game. It’s the third time both participants entered the game riding winning streaks of at least five games. This will be the fifth rematch of teams that met during the regular season, with the winner of the first game only winning the title game twice in four tries. The host team is 9-3 in Conference USA championship games, winning the last five games.