One of the more intriguing matchups from the opening weekend of bowl action involves the SMU Mustangs of the AAC and the Florida Atlantic Owls of Conference USA facing off in the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl. Kickoff is set for 3:30 EST on Saturday, December 21 at FAU Football Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida, the home of the Owls. The game will be televised nationally on ABC.
Current betting odds have SMU as 3-point favorites despite the game being played on Florida Atlantic’s home field. The over/under for the game is an ambitious 70.5 points. Click here to check out a full schedule and betting odds for all of this season’s bowl games.
The Owls head into bowl season fresh off their second Conference USA title in the last three years. FAU began the season with back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Central Florida. But they quickly turned things around, winning 10 of their last 11 games, including a 49-6 blowout of UAB in the Conference USA Championship Game.
Of course, that success came at a cost. Head coach Lane Kiffin took off for Ole Miss immediately after the C-USA title game, just two years after signing a 10-year contract to coach the Owls. Former Oregon and Florida State head coach Willie Taggart has already signed on to take over at FAU following the bowl game. In the meantime, interim coach Glenn Spencer will lead the Owls into their fourth bowl game in program history in hopes of keeping Florida Atlantic’s undefeated bowl record intact.
As for SMU, they were the talk of college football after starting the year 8-0 and working their way into the top-25. However, the Mustangs hit a pair of stumbling blocks late in the year, losing to both Memphis and Navy. Despite the setbacks that kept the Mustangs out of the AAC Championship Game, SMU won 10 games for the first time since 1984.
Sonny Dykes will now try to cap off a dream season with SMU’s first bowl win since 2012. The Mustangs lost the Frisco Bowl to Louisiana Tech two years ago and missed out on a bowl game after last year’s 5-7 campaign, so the SMU players should be hungry to get a win in a postseason game.
Not many teams are lucky enough to play a bowl game in their home stadium. I also find it a little puzzling that Florida Atlantic will do so as an underdog. I’m not sure Kiffin’s exit will have a huge impact on bowl preparations. Also, the younger FAU players will be looking to impress Taggart, who will surely be watching. Plus, the Owls are undoubtedly one of the hottest teams in the country. That makes me happy to take Florida Atlantic as underdogs on their home field.
The one concern I’ve had with SMU all season is their defense. If they were just a little better on that side of the ball, the Mustangs could have won the AAC. Alas, they gave up close to 32 points per game against a schedule that only included five bowl-eligible teams. Over half their opponents scored at least 30 points against them, with the SMU secondary being exposed on a regular basis. That makes it difficult to trust them as favorites against a conference champion like FAU.
I have little doubt that the Owls will be capable of doing serious damage against the SMU defense. Florida Atlantic scored over 40 points in six of their games and averaged 38 points per game over their final seven games of the season. Quarterback Chris Robison finished his second season as the starter with nearly 3,400 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes, compared to just six interceptions. The Owls also had a rushing attack that came along the second half of the season behind freshman Malcolm Davidson, who ran for 128 yards on just 11 carries in the C-USA Championship Game.
To be fair, the SMU offense was one of the most dynamic in the country this year. Texas transfer Shane Buechele took the reins of the offense and posted crazy numbers, averaging over 300 passing yards per game. The Mustangs eclipsed 40 points in eight of their 12 games behind Buechele’s 33 touchdown passes. SMU also had plenty of balance on offense with running back Xavier Jones, who rushed for over 1,200 yards.
That being said, I expect the FAU defense to put up a little more resistance than most of SMU’s opponents did during the regular season. Remember, the Owls faced Ohio State and Central Florida early in the season. While they struggled in those games, there’s nothing SMU can throw at them talent-wise that they haven’t seen before. Florida Atlantic also leads the country in interceptions, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them force some turnovers as a way of getting stops against the SMU offense.
To be honest, I’m surprised this game isn’t a straight-up PK, especially with FAU playing at home. Some of the luster is off the Mustangs after their late-season losses. I also have serious concerns about the SMU defense whereas FAU is a little more balanced between offense and defense. To me, this game is a tossup at best, so I’ll take my chances with the Owls playing at home as underdogs.