By Evan Meyer
In 2017, the Mid-American Conference has sent five teams to post-season bowl participations. One of them surprisingly is the Akron Zips.
The Blue and Gold were selected fourth in the MAC Eastern Division however they got off to their best start since joining the conference at 3-0. After absorbing crushing road losses at Toledo and Miami, the Zips regrouped and won their final two games to win their first division title for the first time since 2005.
They headed to the Marathon MAC Championship game in Detroit where they fell in a rematch with the Rockets
Their reward for this surprising season is a trip to Boca Raton, Florida to face the Florida Atlantic Owls Champions of Conference USA in the fourth Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl.
Here are my preview points for the matchup on December 19th at FAU Stadium
OWLS – ZIPS PREVIEW POINTS
Tuesday evening’s battle in South Florida will be the first ever meeting between the two schools
FBS BOWL GAME HISTORY
FLORIDA ATLANTIC – The game will be the Owls third since joining Division I-A/Football Bowl Subdivision. They have a record of 1-1 defeating Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl 44-27 in 2007 and defeated Central Michigan 24-21 in the Motor City Bowl in 2008
AKRON-For the Zips this will be their third FBS Bowl appearance. In 2005 losing to Memphis 38-31 in the Motor City Bowl then defeating Utah State in the 2015 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl 23-21
FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS (10-3)
The Owls won their first C-USA Eastern Division title then took the outright title on December 2nd defeating the Mean Green of North Texas 41-17 at FAU Stadium
FAU is coach by Lane Kiffin who is completing his first season at the school. The former head coach at Tennessee and Southern California came to FAU after being offensive coordinator for Nick Saban and Alabama
The Owls began the season at 1-3 with losses to Navy, Wisconsin, and Buffalo. However, since they defeated Middle Tennessee on September 30th, FAU has rattled off nine straight wins
The offense is averaging 39.1 points and 491.4 yards per game. They are led by RB Devin Singletary. The senior rushed for 1796 yards with 30 touchdowns (28 by rushing). He was named C-USA’s Most Valuable Player and was name to the All-American Third team. The first ever in school history.
Junior Jason Driskel is the quarterback. He has started the last 10 games (going 9-1) he has completed 65.6 percent of his passes (166-of-253) for 1977 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The receivers are led by Willie Wright who caught 49 passes in 2017 for 586 yards and four touchdowns.
The offensive line has allowed just 15 sacks during the season
The FAU defense has allowed 24.2 points and 408.5 yards in their 13 games of 2017. They have 33 sacks and have a +12 turnover margin
The defense is led by Junior LB Azeez Al-Shaair who led the team with 134 tackles (67 solo).
Sophomore LB Rashad Smith leads the team in tackles for losses with 10.5 and is tied with Graduate Student Jeremiah Talani with five sacks each
Junior DB Jalen Young has picked off seven passes.
Within the special teams, Graduate Student Jalen Joseph has scored 109 points (59-of-63 on extra points & 15-of-19 on field goals) while sophomore KR Kerrith Wilson has a 24,7 yard average per return and has scored a touchdown this season
On their 2017 schedule, FAU has played eight Bowl teams (Navy, Wisconsin, North Texas, Western Kentucky, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Florida International) and are one of nine Conference USA bowl teams
In their history, the Owls are 2-3 lifetime against the Mid-American Conference including a 34-31 loss at Buffalo on September 23rd
Head Coach Lane Kiffin is one of two first year head coach in the FBS with 10 or more wins this season (the other is Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley 12)
The Owls are the second most improved team in the FBS in terms of win increase at +8. Fresno State leads with +9
AKRON ZIPS (7-6)
The Zips are champions of the MAC Eastern Division for the first time since In their regular season finale, the Zips clinched their first East title since 2005 and their second in overall as they defeated their arch rivals the Kent State Golden Flashes 24-14 at InfoCision Stadium to retain the Wagon Wheel Trophy for a third consecutive season before losing to Toledo 45-28 on December 2nd at the Marathon MAC Championship Game in Detroit
In the regular season UA averaged offensively 24.2 points and 320.1 yards per game.
For most of the season, senior Thomas Woodson was the quarterback. He was suspended before the Miami game and redshirt freshman Cato Nelson took over. Nelson led the Zips to their two biggest wins of the season against Ohio (37-34 at home on November 14th) and KSU.
In 2017, Woodson completed 57.2 percent of his passes (159-of-278) for 1777 Yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Nelson in his 10 games (four starts 2-2) completed 48.8 percent of his throws (61-of-125) for 908 yards with six touchdowns and to interceptions
In his career, Woodson has passed for 6,864 yards and 53 touchdowns second to Charlie Frye in both categories
The running game is devoid of two big keys. Graduate student Warren Ball who broke his leg in the MAC opener at Bowling Green and sophomore Deltron Sands also lost for the season with a lower body injury at Miami. Senior Manny Morgan leads with 393 yards and three touchdowns.
The receivers are led by converted QB Tra’Von Chapman who moved to the position in the spring when Jerome Lane left for the NFL Draft. Chapman has 50 receptions for 456 yards and two touchdowns.
The offensive line who had just nine combined starts at the start of the 2016 season has been a cohesive group in 2017. The line of five has given up 33 sacks however 16 of those came in three games (10 in two games against Toledo & six against Kent State)
The Zips defense has allowed 24.8 points and 421.4 yards in their 12 games. They have sacked the quarterback 21 times and have come up with 19 interceptions (tied Central Michigan 19) returning three of them and has a turnover margin of +12
Junior Ulysses Gilbert is the leader. The 2016 MAC Defensive Player of the Year and first team All-MAC in 2017 is having another solid season with 128 total tackles (62 solo). Gilbert also leads the Zips with five sacks. Has had 8 ½ tackles for losses and has three interceptions (one for a touchdown against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and two off Toledo’s Logan Woodside including one in the MAC Championship Game). In the win over KSU he returned a fumble 40 yards for a score
Redshirt junior DL Jamal Davis II leads with 13 ½ tackles for losses for 41 yards while junior CB Jordan George leads with five interceptions including one in three of his last four game including the MAC title game. Another junior CB, Kyron Brown, is tied for third in passes defended with 13.
The kicking game is in the hands of junior Nick Gasser who is averaging 41.9 yards per punt with 14 of them going 50 yards or more and has placed 24 of them inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.
Gasser took over the place kicking duties for the slumping Tom O’ Leary against Miami and has gone two-of-four on field goals including a career best 45-yarder against the Golden Flashes and 9-of-10 on extra points in those three games.
On their 2017 schedule, UA faced five bowl teams (Penn State, Iowa State, Troy, Ohio, and Toledo) two other teams were bowl eligible (Western Michigan & Buffalo) were not selected
In their history UA has a 17-23-2 record against the current teams of Conference USA. Their last game against them was at Marshall on September ,2016 defeating the Thundering Herd
On their current roster, UA has 12 players from the South Florida area..In addition, 17 players participated in the 2015 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Utah State
Akron will open the 2018 season on September 1st at Nebraska which will be Scott Frost’s first game as Head Coach of the Cornhuskers
BOWDEN vs. KIFFIN
The Boca Raton Bowl will be the first ever meeting between the two coaches
TERRY BOWDEN-Completed his sixth season as the Zips head coach. He has a 31-43 record with the Zips…171-105-2 overall….He is 3-1 in FBS Bowl Games (1-0 at Akron)…first game against Florida Atlantic
LANE KIFFIN-Completing his first season at FAU. He has a 10-3 record with the Owls…35-24 overall…1-0 in FBS Bowl games…first game against Akron
BOCA RATON BOWL HISTORY
This is the fourth Boca Raton Bowl…all of them have been played at FAU Stadium…This is the third time a Mid-American Conference team will face an opponent from Conference USA
2014 Marshall 52 – Northern Illinois 23
2015 Toledo 32 – Temple 17
2016 Western Kentucky 51 – Memphis 31
2017 Akron vs. Florida Atlantic