BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) — Lane Kiffin used the line less than a minute into in his introductory speech when taking over as coach at Florida Atlantic, and has repeated the phrase often since.
“For us to do the impossible, we have to see the invisible,” Kiffin said.
The mantra that Kiffin put forth on Dec. 13, 2016 might have seemed like pablum at the time, but no more. Kiffin and FAU are playing host to the Conference USA championship game Saturday, when the Owls (9-3, 8-0 C-USA) take on North Texas (9-3, 7-1). The game is a rematch of a regular-season matchup from Oct. 21, when FAU won 69-31.
“This is really against all odds,” Kiffin said. “As much as I’d like to say I saw all of it, I don’t know that I saw the scores the way that they were. A lot of these games haven’t been close versus really good teams. I could see the record, but I don’t know that even I could have predicted the margin of victory in most of these games. A lot of these games, we’re playing our backups in the second half.”
The Owls started 1-3, and have won eight straight games since — the third-longest current winning streak among FBS schools. They’ve won seven games by at least 18 points, four by at least 28.
And Kiffin has done it all while not forgetting his sense of humor or penchant for Twitter-trolling. He’s been mentioned as a candidate for jobs at bigger programs in recent weeks, and when he was late for a recent meeting with his team he walked in saying, “Sorry, I was on the phone with Tennessee” — a school where he was in the past, and hasn’t minded taking some mild shots at on social media since.
“As you guys probably know, I kind of don’t do things the same way as other people,” Kiffin said.
FAU already has as many wins this season than it had in the last three seasons combined. And it’s been a bounceback year for North Texas as well, after winning five games a season ago.
“Coach Kiffin deserves everything he gets. He’s one heck of a football coach,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “But this conference has a lot of great coaches. … Once you start to see us play, and compete, I think everybody’s starting to realize that we feel like we can compete with everybody.”
North Texas has won five straight since that blowout loss in Boca Raton, and Kiffin doesn’t expect to see another one-sided game.
“The last game is going to mean nothing,” Kiffin said. “They’re going to be extremely motivated and I’m sure they’ll play really well.”
Here’s some other things to know going into Saturday:
It’s the fourth straight year that Kiffin will be part of a conference title game. Alabama won the Southeastern Conference crown in each of the past three seasons, all while Kiffin was offensive coordinator. The Crimson Tide didn’t get to the SEC title game this season, but Kiffin’s streak of playing for a crown lives on.
In the Conference USA preseason media poll, no voters picked either FAU or North Texas to win a division championship this season. Saturday’s winner will become the ninth different school in 13 years to win the C-USA title game; four of the previous eight — East Carolina, UCF, Tulsa and Houston — are no longer in the conference.
It’s a matchup of the top two scoring offenses in Conference USA, with No. 1 FAU averaging 39.8 points (46.0 in C-USA games) and No. 2 North Texas averaging 37.5 points (36.6 in C-USA games). Each team has topped the 40-point mark six times this season. The difference is the defenses. FAU is giving up 23.9 points to conference rivals, North Texas is giving up 31.4.
FAU has 35 touchdowns on the ground in C-USA games this season. No two conference teams, combined, have more. FAU star Devin Singletary has 21 TD runs against conference opponents in 2017; no other player in the league has more than 11. Singletary’s 26 touchdown runs overall is the most by any FBS player this year. And Singletary and Oregon’s Royce Freeman are the only FBS running backs this season with two four-touchdown games.
The home team has won the last five C-USA title games. But when the C-USA title game is a rematch of a regular-season game, the team that won the first matchup is only 2-2 when playing for the trophy.