Lowered Expectations Never Felt So Good for FAU

John LawrenceContributor IJune 10, 2009

NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 21:  Head coach Howard Schnellenberger of the Florida Atlantic University Owls is carried on his team's shoulders after defeating the Memphis University Tigers 44-27 in the New Orleans Bowl on December 21, 2007 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

This time last year, FAU was a hands down favorite to win the Sun Belt, was on most BCS Buster Lists and littered numerous watch lists.  So far in 2009, I have yet to find any college football group of "experts" willing to predict that FAU will win the Sun Belt Conference. 

They have hit one BCS Buster List so far, but it was done with a disclaimer that Troy would have been a better option (but Troy plays the Florida Gators).  FAU players have hit some watch lists this year but there isn't as much love as last year.

FAU started the 2008 season off with a bang (in the wrong direction), as they were crushed by Texas 52-10.  They felt they still could grab a Sun Belt Championship until they started their Sun Belt run with two losses (on national television).  FAU was 1-5 and all expectations were officially forgotten. 

So what happened next?

FAU won five of their next six games and was invited to their second bowl game in school history.  Thank goodness there were not any high expectations for those Owls when they went into Detroit to play Central Michigan, because FAU was able to overtake Central Michigan and become the first Sun Belt team to win back-to-back bowl games.

Surely all of the college football "experts" lowered expectations for 2009 must upset the FAU players?  Of course not, FAU is happy to be ignored.  They know that early 2009 predictions mean nothing once you're a few weeks into the season. 

The 2008 FAU Owls let expectations go to their head.

Many players, including standout QB Rusty Smith will tell people that they did not put too much effort into Spring, the weight room or preseason practice in 2008.  They felt like they had the Sun Belt Championship in the bag and could hopefully sneak up on Texas and/or Michigan State in OOC play.

In 2009 FAU is giving 110 percent in every aspect of their preparation.  This season should be the biggest offensive showcase FAU fans have ever experienced.  Sure they've only existed since 2001, but still this should be an amazing offensive season for the Owls of FAU.

QB Rusty Smith is entering his senior year.  Only a year ago Howard Schnellenberger was claiming that Rusty Smith could be first round NFL talent. 

However, Smith's stock fell a bit last year.  He started the 2008 season with a great opening drive against the Texas Longhorns and was ready to score, but stretching out for a high snap injured his shoulder.  It took weeks for Smith to fully recover from the injury.

Now Rusty is 100 percent and excited about the 2009 season, which could easily send his stock back up to the first day of the NFL draft.

Why is Rusty Smith excited?  He is loaded with starters from 2008 and even one from 2007, in TE Jason Harmon.  Jason missed all of 2008 due to injury but is back for the 2009 effort.  FAU possesses one of, if not the best crop of tight ends in the NCAA, and Harmon is their best. 

The "Harmon Hop" should be in full effect in 2009, especially against some of the OOC opponents that are unaware of what exactly the "Harmon Hop" is.  Just look up some of his highlights, particularly when FAU played (then No. 6) South Florida in 2007.

Rusty Smith also has a solid line and has Cortez Gent and rising deep threat talent Chris Bonner to depend on.  In Rusty Smith's previous seasons, he had an average running game to rely on.  This spring FAU discovered they could possibly have  a seriously destructive running game.  

Due to some spring injuries FAU gave Alfred Morris a shot at tailback in their spring game and he shot to the top of the Charles Pierre replacement list with 131 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries.  He is built like a bruiser but surprisingly moves and cuts very well.  This guy could possibly be molded into FAU's own version of Barry Sanders.

Of course coach Howard Schnellenberger wants to keep Morris working hard, by stating that he won't name his starters in the running game until 10 days before they open the season in Nebraska.

So the offense is more than fine and capable of scoring on everyone they play this year.  The defense is the big question mark.  FAU lost the majority of their defensive starters with the end of the 2008 season (including the ever aggressive Frantz Joseph). 

However, aside from Frantz FAU was not very impressive on defense last season.  They were a team that allowed rival FIU to score 28 points in the forth quarter last year (luckily the FAU offense scored 28 points in that forth quarter as well).

So despite having such a new young defense, I'd say change is a good thing this year.  The FAU defense appears to be poised to put a little more pressure on QB's which should also help the secondary.  Particularly, DB Tavious Polo has a good shot at returning to his early 2007 statistics.

So what will FAU's final record be this season? 

Who will win the Sun Belt Conference and have a good shot at sneaking up on some out of conference opponents?

The Sun Belt Conference is getting very competitive and should take down more giants in OOC play in the years to come and it will get more and more difficult for a Sun Belt Conference champion to go undefeated in their conference games.

I don't want to raise expectations on the Owls of Boca Raton, but I think some of you can guess as to what team I think has a descent shot at taking on the men of Troy, Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State and the rest of the rising talent of the Sun Belt. 

I think the winner of the Sun Belt Conference in 2009 might just be a team headed to their third straight bowl appearance (I should probably also mention Howard Schnellenberger holds the record winning streak in bowl games with an undefeated 6-0 record)