The first matchup involving a MAC team in the bowl season is on Tuesday, when the Akron Zips travel down to Boca Raton to take on the Conference USA champion FAU Owls in their home stadium.
The Owls went 10-3 in 2017, including a torrid 8-0 in-conference on their way to the bowl season, completing a dream season in Lane Kiffin’s first year at the helm. THey get the chance to end things on an exclamnation mark in front of a “de facto” home crowd against Akron.
The Zips had a bit bumpier ride to get to Boca, going 7-6 in 2017, including 6-3 in the MAC to finish as a runner-up to earn their bowl bid. It’s the squad’s second bowl bid under Terry Bowden and the first since the 2014 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Setting The Scene:
- Date/Time/TV: Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. EST on ESPN and the ESPN App.
- Expected weather conditions: Partly cloudy and 74 degrees at kickoff, per Weather.com.
- Odds: FAU is a 22-point favorite, per OddsShark.com. It opened at FAU -17. Over/under is set at 65.
- FAU: 10-3 overall, 8-0 C-USA. Last game: home win vs. North Texas in C-USA Championship Game, 41-17.
- Akron: 7-6, 6-3 MAC. Last game: neutral loss vs. Toledo in MAC Championship Game, 45-28.
When FAU is on the field:
The Owls have many weapons on both sides of the ball, which isn’t all that surprising considering Kiffin’s ability to attract big name transfers.
That said, perhaps the most dangerous of these weapons is an old Charlie Partridge recruit in Devin Singletary, the FBS’ leading rusher by touchdowns scored on the ground.
Singletary, a sophomore running back, is currently fourth in the FBS in rushing yards (1,796 on 231 carries) and leads the country in rushing touchdowns (29) coming into Tuesday night’s matchup. He’ll surely be a player the Zips zone in on, especially since the Owls are the six-ranked rushing offense in the country by raw numbers. The Owls average an incredible 283.2 yards per game on the ground, which will prove to be a challenge for the 99th-ranked Zips rushing defense, which has allowed 5.01 yards per rushing attempt and 19 rushing touchdowns in 2017.
The Owls are fairly decent in the air too, collecting 2,713 yards and 19 touchdowns while only giving away seven interceptions. This is, perhaps where Akron has the best chance to impact the game. The Zips don’t necessarily have the best of passing defenses in terms of raw numbers (3,054 yards and 22 touchdowns allowed), but they’re extremely opportunistic, tying for second with Central Michigan and Iowa for interceptions (19), returning three for touchdowns.
When Akron is on the field:
Not many people expcted Akron to be in this situation, but fans certainly won’t complain. To be a conference runner-up when many expected the Zips to fight for their bowl lives is a compliment to Terry Bowden’s ability to make needed adjustments and rally his team.
The Zips will likely start Hollywood, Florida, native Kato Nelson at quarterback for tomorrow’s game, and that’s the best move going forward for the Zips. Nelson went 2-2 as a starter and had some memorable performances in relief of Thomas Woodson, who was suspended for three games for an unspecified violation of team rules. The redshirt freshman has passed for 786 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception in those four starts, with only one real dud performance vs. Kent State. His dual-threat ability is enough to make defenses hesitate, which opens up the playbook.
The Zips will have to rely on the passing game to propel them to victory, as the running game has struggled with the absence of Warren Ball and Deltron Sands, two of the more dynamic runners on the roster. Manny Morgan and Van Edwards Jr. will split time at the position and are usually reliable receivers coming out of the backfield, as the Zips rank 117th in rushing offense.
This is where the Zips can strike against a prone FAU pass defense, which is ranked 91st in the country with an average of 242.5 yards allowed in the air per game and 18 passing touchdowns overall. If Akron can push the Owl defense on the outside with Tra’Von Chapman, Kwadarrius Smith and AJ Coney, it could open a window for Akron to pull off an impressive upset.
Generally, I’m not keen on specific score predictions and all indications are FAU will likely overwhelm the Zips, especially given it’s a de facto home game for the Owls. That said, it could prove to be quite a fight if Akron can slow down the pace of play to a point where FAU is limited with their options on offense.
I’d also like to point out a lot of the Akron roster’s better players hail from Florida, and you can’t underestimate the emotional factor that postseason play can bring out in teams. FAU, as well, could face emotional pressure to perform once again at home with another trophy on the line in a game where some fans aren’t exactly excited with the opponent they drew.
If Akron can keep it within two scores, I’d consider it a good game.