The State of the Program Entering I-A
At the start of the new millennium, on the 40th anniversary of its founding, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton turned to a Miami-area legend to kick-start the commencement of the school’s sponsorship of a football program. Howard Schnellenberger, the man who brought the University of Miami its first national title in 1983, joined forces with FAU as they opened the 2001 season at the I-AA level.
The Owls would go 4-6 and 2-9 in their first two seasons as a I-AA independent as Schnellenberger laid the foundation for the school’s rise to the upper division. They would have a breakthrough in 2003, FAU’s final year as a full I-AA member as they prepared for the transitional period to come.
Going 9-2 in the regular season, Florida Atlantic earned a spot in the NCAA postseason tournament bracket. Having to play the opening round on the road, the Owls knocked off Bethune-Cookman 32-24 to earn a trip to the quarterfinals. Traveling to Flagstaff to take on Northern Arizona at the second-highest stadium in either level of Division I football, FAU stunned the Big Sky Conference co-champion Lumberjacks 48-25.
The Owls’ dream run through the bracket would end at home on December 13, as FAU fell to Colgate at Lockhart Stadium 36-24 in the semifinal round. While they would miss a prime opportunity to play for a national title, the 11-3 campaign gave Schnellenberger’s crew momentum as they prepared for their first season as a I-A member.
The First Season
In their first game as a transitional member of the I-A ranks in 2004, Florida Atlantic flew all the way to Hawaii to take on the Warriors. Surprising June Jones’ squad on their home turf, the Owls would leave the islands a 35-28 victor. Taking on future Sun Belt foes North Texas and Middle Tennessee in their next two contests, FAU were still undefeated by the end of September and had yet to play a game at home.
Road trips against I-AA opponents opened the month of October. The Owls knocked off Texas State 20-13 on the 9th. They would follow the performance by handily beating Northern Colorado 39-24, running their record to 5-0 in the process.
Finally playing their first home game at the I-A level, Florida Atlantic failed to maintain the momentum of their huge start. Louisiana-Monroe would deal the Owls their first loss of the season at Lockhart Stadium on October 23, the Warhawks hanging on for a narrow 17-13 victory. They would rebound against Florida A&M the following weekend, winning 38-8 for their sixth straight on the road as the Owls finished October 6-1 in the standings.
Troy ended that streak on November 6, opening the new month with a 24-6 blowout of Florida Atlantic. New Mexico State would deal FAU a second straight defeat on the first weekend of November, the 35-7 mismatch on the heels of the Troy defeat showing that a gulf still existed between the Owls and the better teams in the conference they would join in 2005. But Schnellenberger would keep the team focused, and the losing streak would soon be staved.
Home games against I-AA Illinois State and Edward Waters helped return FAU to their winning ways. Taking on fellow I-A neophyte and local rival Florida International in the final game of the season, the Owls finished the season at 9-3 as they knocked off the Golden Panthers 17-10. Other than their fortnight of futility against the Trojans and Aggies at the beginning of November, Florida Atlantic had proved throughout their first year at the I-A ranks that they were a viable candidate to make the leap.
How Have They Fared Since?
The transition to full Sun Belt membership would set the team back to 2-9 in the standings in 2005, as the Owls played a full I-A schedule without any I-AA opponents for respite. Only wins over Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas would prevent FAU from finishing the first season of conference play in school history with a winless record.
Things improved in 2006 as Florida Atlantic came within one win of bowl eligibility. A challenging out-of-conference schedule in September would put the Owls in a bind with an 0-4 start, but they would go 4-3 in conference play to finish in a tie for third in the Sun Belt standings. While FAU was still far from competitive against teams like Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and South Carolina, they were starting to hold their own against the rest of their league.
2007 would be a breakthrough year for the Owls, as the team won their first (and as yet only) conference title. Finishing with a 6-1 record in Sun Belt play blemished only by an October 27 loss at home to Louisiana-Monroe, FAU claimed the conference title and the attendant berth in the New Orleans Bowl by virtue of their 38-32 win at Troy on the final day of the regular season, relegating a Trojans team that entered the game undefeated in league play completely out of the postseason. In their trip to the Big Easy the Owls took care of business, beating Memphis 44-27 to win a bowl game on their first try.
Falling back in the pack in 2008, FAU finished just third in the Sun Belt. Another tough non-conference schedule set the Owls back with a 1-5 record in the first half of the season. But as they entered the heart of their conference schedule, Florida Atlantic hit their stride. Winning five of their final six to finish the regular season at .500, FAU was rewarded for their hot streak with an invite to face Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl. Their trip to Detroit would yield a seventh win on the year, the Owls prevailing 24-21 over the Chippewas for another winning season.
And then the regression commenced. Florida Atlantic would miss out on a third straight bowl berth as they finished 5-7 in 2009, wins in their last two games coming too late to make them eligible for a postseason appearance. They would only manage four wins in 2010, a preface to the 1-11 disaster that would befall the Owls the following season in the last season of Howard Schnellenberger’s legendary career in college coaching.
Under new head coach Carl Pelini in 2012, the Owls improved by two wins to post a 3-9 record in their final Sun Belt campaign. Moving to Conference USA in 2013, Florida Atlantic will try to build upon the nascent foundation laid by their former leader and return to a time when they looked like a potential postseason staple.
About the Author: Zach Bigalke
Zach is a historian and author who has been covering sports near and far for various publications since 2006. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports and Global Turnstile, he has also been featured at Helium, FanSided, the Portland State Vanguard and other online publications. He currently lives in Track Town USA, where he lives with his wife while belatedly pursuing higher education at the University of Oregon.