BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) — Lane Kiffin has Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA title game for the second time in three years, his 2017 champion Owls set to match up against the reigning league champs from UAB.
So that’s where he’ll be on Saturday.
No one knows where he’ll be on Sunday.
Kiffin’s name tends to come up annually during coaching-search season, and this year is no exception. With higher-profile — and much-higher-paying — jobs like Ole Miss and Arkansas open, Kiffin has been asked plenty this week about his future and about speculation that he might be ready to head back to the SEC. He hasn’t shed much light on the topic, plus said he hasn’t talked to his team about what the rumor mill is churning either.
"I’ve never addressed that,” Kiffin said. “Maybe I'm wrong, but no matter where I've been, whatever's been going on, I've never addressed that with the team. ... It is what it is. And if you get mentioned for a job, it's usually because you're winning and a product of your coaches and players doing really well."
FAU has become a winner under Kiffin. The Owls were 11-3, Conference USA champions and Boca Raton Bowl winners in 2017, slipped to 5-7 last year — “we screwed up,” Kiffin said — and rebounded this year to go 9-3 again. He hast 25 wins in three seasons, while FAU won only 23 games in the seven seasons before he arrived combined.
It’s only natural that he’s viewed as a big-time candidate again. He spent 2009 at Tennessee, then the next 3 ½ seasons at USC before heading to Alabama as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator. The Owls hired him after their 2016 season, looking for big things.
They got them, at the relative bargain of about $1 million a year. Kiffin could make three or four times that much if he heads back to a spotlight job, a salary level that FAU simply can’t compete with.
“In the third year of a program I think if you would have taken a poll of all people at this university and said, ‘we’re playing in two championships and win one of them and have a chance to go to bowl for a 10-win season after having an 11-win season two years before,’ everybody would have signed up,” Kiffin said. “Personally, I don’t because I expect us to win a championship every year but I think for everyone else, they should be proud of that.”
Amid all the speculation, there is a game to play.
Before last season, home teams had won six consecutive C-USA title games. The last of those was FAU’s 41-17 win over North Texas in 2017, Kiffin’s first season and the largest margin of victory in any of the 14 previous title matchups. UAB snapped that trend by winning at Middle Tennessee for last season’s title, and Blazers coach Bill Clark said that memory will matter on Saturday.
“Confidence is always a huge factor for every athlete. ... I think it’s just, ‘All right, we’re going into a tough environment against a great team and it’s their home — but we have done this before,’” Clark said. “We were able to do this last year. I do think that hopefully gives them confidence that it can be done again.”
Here’s some of what to know:
UAB got to the title game with defense. The Blazers are ranked fifth nationally in total defense, giving up only 269.8 yards per game. They’re fifth nationally against the run (giving up 92.3 yards per game) and sixth nationally against the pass (177.5). They’re also aggressive; out of the 130 FBS teams, only 10 have picked up more penalty yards per game on average.
STRENGTH AGAINST STRENGTH
The Owls’ forte is offense — they average 431 yards per game, second-best in the conference, and have scored at least 31 in each of their last six games. Only Alabama (12 games) and Clemson (seven) have longer streaks.
FAU leads the nation in turnover margin — one spot ahead of Kiffin’s former employer, Alabama. The Owls have forced 29 turnovers and lost just 10 this season, the difference of 1.58 per game well ahead of the second-ranked Crimson Tide (1.33). Last year, FAU ranked 112th nationally in turnover margin.
The Owls and Blazers have four common opponents this season. Both beat Old Dominion and UTSA. Both also played Southern Miss and Western Kentucky; FAU went 2-0 against those schools, UAB went 0-2.
THE LAST TIME
UAB and FAU last played in 2014, the Blazers’ final season before their hiatus. UAB led 28-7 going into the fourth quarter, the Owls rallied with three touchdowns in 10 minutes to tie the game but the Blazers prevailed 31-28 on a field goal with 2 seconds remaining. UAB also played on FAU’s field last season in the Boca Raton Bowl, beating Northern Illinois 37-13.