Lane Kiffin’s decision to resurrect his profile as a head coach at, of all places, FAU was a twist in the coaching carousel of last year few saw coming. One year on the job, however, has made for an enjoyable combination that FAU hopes to keep going for a long time. Before leading the Owls to a 50-3 blowout of Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl in FAU’s home stadium on Tuesday night, Kiffin signed a 10-year contract extension at FAU. How many of those years will Kiffin stay put still remains to be seen.
— Lane Kiffin (@Lane_Kiffin) December 19, 2017
Kiffin’s 2017 season was one of the most interesting storylines to follow from start to finish. After being one of the buzzworthy names in the coaching rumor mill a year ago, Kiffin never attracted the kind of job offers you might have expected Alabama’s offensive coordinator to receive. That’s in part because unlike other branches of the Nick Saban coaching tree, Kiffin had a bit of a checkered past as a head coach that may have caused some programs with vacancies to look at other options. Kiffin’s brief stint at Tennessee remains a bitter topic of conversation in Knoxville, and his time at USC ended with the Trojans leaving Kiffin at the airport after a road loss to Arizona State.
With head coaching out of the mix, Kiffin took on a role as offensive coordinator at Alabama, where he had a chance to return to his roots and learn a few tricks of the trade from the best coach in college football, Saban. It was a great opportunity for Kiffin to step out of the spotlight a bit and mature a bit on a staff that has developed a knack for building up assistants and coordinators.
After a few years of rebuilding his own confidence and pedigree, the time finally came for Kiffin to dip his toes back in the head coaching game at the end of the 2016 season, but the offers were nowhere to be found until FAU threw out a life preserver. Much to the delight of FAU, Kiffin accepted the offer, even when many observers questioned if Kiffin would be better off staying at Alabama for another season in search of better offers. But for Kiffin, FAU was the best possible option at the time. After accepting the job while Alabama was preparing for a national championship run, Saban essentially pushed Kiffin out of Tuscaloosa to focus on the FAU job and not serve as a distraction for Alabama.
In hindsight, Saban may have caused more of a distraction by forcing Kiffin out when he did. Alabama bumped Steve Sarkisian into the role of offensive coordinator just before the College Football Playoff national championship game, which Alabama lost to Clemson. Kiffin watched from afar as he prepared to build FAU’s roster.
Kiffin quickly improved the roster at FAU, which had won just three games in each of the previous three years and four of the last five seasons, by adding JUCO transfers, including some previously featured in the Netflix documentary series “Last Chance U.” The results were more than gratifying. FAU went 10-3 in the regular season, winning 10 games for the first time in program history and capturing its first Conference USA championship (the second conference championship in program history pairing with a 2007 Sun Belt title under Howard Schnellenberger). The reward was what amounted to a home game in the bowl season with a matchup against Akron on Tuesday night, and Kiffin stopped at no turn to pile it on the Zips.
Where do we go from here?
FAU may have a 10-year contract extension in place for Kiffin, but we all know the reality of the coaching game in college football. If Kiffin continues to thrive like this at FAU, then his name will continue to receive more credibility that will eventually lead to some phone calls to Kiffin and his agent. Kiffin seems content in Boca Raton, but taking the under on Kiffin’s 10-year contract feels like guaranteed money, as Kiffin could very well be fielding more coaching offers a year from now after he proves the 2017 season was no fluke.
But what happens if Kiffin decides, “You know what, I’m cool running up the score on fools in Conference USA?” That could be a ton of fun. Who wouldn’t want to see a rogue Group of Five program rising to be one of the dominant forces in the game with the power to make a run to a potential New Years Six bowl game as a Group of Five threat? Sign me up for that.
In the brief College Football Playoff era, now in Year Four, Conference USA has yet to land a team in the New Years Six bowl lineup with the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion. In fact, Conference USA has not even sniffed the lucrative bowl spot. The closest the conference has come was when Marshall went 12-1 in the first year of the new bowl format (Boise State landed the spot that year). If Kiffin sticks around, could he get FAU there? The odds may not be very good anytime too soon given the level of respect Conference USA has compared to the other conferences at this point in time, but if Kiffin sticks around for a while then the Owls could work their way up to that level.
In 2018, FAU will open the season on the road against Oklahoma (who will be starting off the post-Baker Mayfield run and could potentially be coming off a national championship). Count on a loss, but if FAU can just make things interesting for a while, that may pay off. The Owls will host Air Force from the Mountain West Conference, and two weeks later they will play UCF of the American Athletic Conference. The UCF game will be significant for a number of reasons. The Knights are this year’s Group of Five team in the New Years Six, but a new head coach will be in charge with Scott Frost leaving for Nebraska. Given the rise of UCF, a victory in Orlando would be a tremendous step forward for the rise of the FAU program. And if Kiffin can go 2-0 against Air Force and UCF, then FAU could very much be in the early running for New Years Six consideration with a full conference slate to play.
It’s a lot to ask, but Kiffin and FAU are making football fun to watch in Boca Raton. We should cherish watching Kiffin-coached FAU before it inevitably ends.