During the off-season, Forgotten Five has decided to do some research. We launched a multi-part series looking at some of the Group of Five’s most unique conference champions.
Teams such as Boise’s great teams, the 2004 and 2008 Utah teams, and Hawaii’s 2007 team receive so much attention as the Group of Five’s greatest teams in recent memory. Forgotten are the teams that had dream seasons or overcame odd circumstances but did not have a major bowl to show for it. This series tells their tales.
Nowadays, many know FAU because of their (former) wacky, retread coach Lane Kiffin, but there was a giant who set the foundations for his success. It was none other than Howard Schnellenberger.
The year was 2001 and Schnellenberger was poised to take his next new gig. He had been a vagabond of sorts stopping at Miami, Louisville, and Oklahoma before returning to Southern Florida.
He had seen the splendor college football had to offer winning the 1984 Orange Bowl and 1983 national title with Miami, and winning the 1992 Fiesta Bowl with Louisville. Yet, a disastrous 1995 campaign with Oklahoma made him a castaway. Now his new challenge was starting the FAU program from scratch.
Over the next six years, he would bring the program to respectability, leading the Owls to an 11-3 record and FCS playoff appearance in 2003, and a 9-3 record with a win over Hawaii the next year.
They made the jump to FBS in 2005, but struggled in their first two years, going 7-16 in 2005 and 2006. There was little hope heading into 2007 with 2006 co-champ Troy returning their star QB Omar Haugabook and many others. But as previously seen, things hardly went as planned in the Sun Belt.
Playing with the Big Boys
The young program split their first two games with a 27-14 win over the previous year’s co-champ, Middle Tennessee and a 42-6 loss to Oklahoma State.
The next week, in front of an empty Dolphins Stadium (an announced crowd of less than 11,000), the Owls earned their first win over a Power Conference team with a 42-39 win over Minnesota.
Rusty Smith put on a show for the Owls throwing for 463 yards and five touchdowns and no interceptions, but that didn’t stop them from nearly blowing a 42-24 4th quarter lead. The game would hardly look like an upset as time went on with the Gophers finishing at 1-11.
The Owls once again split their next two games with a win over North Texas and a loss to #14 Kentucky 45-7, before a home date against #6 USF. After fighting to 7-7 halftime score, the young program continued to show good fight against the sixth-ranked Bulls, keeping it a one-score game until a late USF touchdown put the game away at 35-23 with under a minute left.
Over the next three games, the Owls embarked on a stretch of exciting one-score games, featuring a couple of comeback victories. Against Louisiana-Lafayette, FAU took only 56 seconds to tie the game with seven seconds left in regulation on a 17-yard Rusty Smith pass to Cortez Gent. A one-yard touchdown run by Charles Pierre would clinch a 39-32 win for FAU.
The following week, the Owls once again needed late game antics to send the game into overtime against Louisiana-Monroe, this time a one-yard Charles Pierre run with 1:12 left, but ultimately fell in triple-overtime to the Warhawks, 33-30.
FAU rebounded with an 11-point comeback against Arkansas State. Down 31-20 in the 4th, Smith bailed the Owls out with two touchdown passes in a 34-31 win.
After a 59-20 loss to #14 Florida, the Owls controlled their own destiny in the Sun Belt leading up to games against FIU and Troy. The Owls easily won the Shula Bowl, 55-23 and completed their sweep of iconic Miami stadiums, this time winning the last televised game at the Orange Bowl.
The following week, the stakes could not be higher. The Owls drew Troy, the defending league champs, in a play-in game for the New Orleans Bowl. Troy already had a share of the Sun Belt title, coming into the game at 6-0 in league play, but a loss to the Owls would give them the tiebreaker.
The Owls had an easy time against the Trojans, racing to a 35-12 4th quarter lead before holding on for a 38-32 win and a birth to the New Orleans Bowl.
Easy Time in the Big Easy
The Owls were not done though as their dream season had a storybook ending against Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl.
Rusty Smith and D’Ivory Edgecomb put on a show, with Smith tossing five touchdowns and Edgecomb tallying 203 all-purpose yards and two scores in a 44-27 win. The Owls became the youngest program to ever win a bowl, and Schnellenberger was hoisted upon the shoulders of his team.
A young program coming out of nowhere and a win at one of the game’s most big-time venues was the perfect high-point to the twilight of Howard Schnellenberger’s career.
The 2007 season proved the well-traveled coach still had it. When thinking of FAU football, it didn’t start with the Lane Train, but rather another iconic comeback coach looking for one more shot.