Undefeated in Conference USA play through six games and primed for a Shula Bowl game where a win would send FAU to the C-USA title game, Kiffin understands that the Owls are in the midst of a program-altering year.
“This is not a normal story,” Kiffin said.
Taking over a team coming off three consecutive 3-9 seasons, Kiffin has the Owls 7-3 in his first 10 games.
In his 11th game, Saturday’s Shula Bowl rivalry match-up against FIU, Kiffin and the Owls could clinch Conference USA’s East Division title and the berth in the C-USA championship game that comes with it.
No matter how optimistic regarding Kiffin’s coaching ability, few foresaw the Owls rising to this point so rapidly.
“Media, however many guys picked at the beginning of they year, no one picked us to win the conference, let alone even the division, so we’re in the middle of a really unique story,” Kiffin said. “We need to keep it going, get to 1-0 this week, but also enjoy it, too.”
During his 11-month tenure at FAU, Kiffin’s proven he can generate a buzz. This week, rivalry week, calls for a different approach.
Kiffin is trying to keep the order.
“I think it’s going to already get built up,” Kiffin said. “I think it’s more our job to focus the players. They’re going to be motivated. They are going to be excited.”
There’s much to be excited about.
The Shula Bowl, named so because FAU program founder Howard Schnellenberger coached under Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula and inaugural FIU coach Don Stock played for Shula, has never carried this much importance.
In a couple meetings one team needed to win to become bowl eligible. This year either the Owls or the Panthers will represent the East in the C-USA title game. Should FAU win, the Owls are in – and the game will be played at Howard Schnellenberger Field.
Even with a Shula Bowl loss, FAU would still advance to the C-USA title game with a win at last-place Charlotte (1-9, 1-6) during the season’s final week. In that scenario, FAU would still host the C-USA title game..
“I think it’s great for South Florida football,” Kiffin said. “There’s some teams up north doing well, some teams struggling a lot. For Miami, FIU and FAU to be playing this well – who would have have thought that we’d be sitting here this time of year and have more wins than Florida and Florida St. combined. That’s pretty neat.”
But that’s the big picture. This week’s snapshot illuminates two teams that know each other well. With both rosters predominantly comprised of Florida players, it will feature former high school teammates, even former youth football teammates, battling to deliver to their school the first-ever appearance in the in the C-USA championship game.
Kiffin’s coached in some of the nation’s biggest rivalries. While he will try to keep the Owls focused this week, he isn’t downplaying the emotion that will flow on Saturday.
“For these kids it’s not different – it’s no different than USC-Notre Dame or UCLA-USC, or Alabama-Tennessee or Alabama-Auburn,” Kiffin said. “For those kids it’s huge, just like it’s huge for these kids. They play with the kids. Regardless of the size of the stadium, it’s still the same for the kids.”