BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) — Lane Kiffin has won much bigger games. He’s got national championships, Southeastern Conference titles, victories before more than 100,000 fans and with millions more watching on television.
This one wasn’t like those.
It still mattered plenty.
Kiffin is a league champion yet again, and Florida Atlantic is one for the first time. Kiffin’s first season at FAU delivered a Conference USA title, as the Owls defeated North Texas 41-17 for the league crown on Saturday. And Kiffin found himself savoring the moment more than many of the big wins he’s been part of in the past.
“It’s a cool story,” Kiffin said. “The Christmas present that you give to the kid that has nothing, they’ll appreciate it compared to the kid that gets them all the time. And so that locker room in there, it’s pretty neat.”
Devin Singletary had 26 carries for 164 yards and three touchdowns for the Owls, who extended their unbeaten streak to nine games and finished undefeated against C-USA opponents this season. Jason Driskel completed 15 of 27 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown for FAU, and Kalib Woods had a school-record 208 receiving yards.
“Words can’t explain it,” Singletary said. “It’s one of the best feelings ever.”
FAU (10-3) had 633 yards of offense, and Kiffin’s last play call of the day was one where he ordered his brother — defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin — to get a water bucket dumped on him. FAU’s players then got the head coach with one, and the celebration was underway.
“It’s really special,” FAU linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair said. “I haven’t been around somebody like that in my time as a player.”
The Owls, who beat North Texas 69-31 in the regular season, took a 34-0 lead in the first 33 minutes on Saturday. FAU had gains of 47, 49, 22, 44, 21 and 34 yards in the first quarter alone, and the lead was never really threatened.
But make no mistake, FAU’s biggest star doesn’t wear a helmet — he wears a visor.
“Got to give credit to Lane Kiffin as well,” North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya said. “He did his thing today.”
Mason Fine completed 28 of 44 passes for 367 yards for the Mean Green (9-4), whose five-game winning streak was snapped. Turner Smiley had a touchdown catch and Evan Johnson ran one in for North Texas, which will be bowl-bound for the second straight year.
The 10-win season matches Kiffin’s best as a head coach. He went 10-2 at USC in 2011.
“You have to give credit to Coach Kiffin and FAU,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “They’re unbelievable.”
It took Kiffin less than a full year to turn FAU’s fortunes around. He inherited a program that was coming off three consecutive 3-9 seasons, and took over after three years as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama.
FAU never looked at the Kiffin hire as a risk. Even if the Owls did, it has officially paid off now.
“He’s been taught by the best,” FAU athletic director Pat Chun said. “He’s had great successes. I think things get lost. He had a winning record as a head coach and he’s learned from his failures. So you put all those together … you thought this could be a place where he achieved a level of success that he had not achieved before.”
North Texas: The Mean Green were outclassed twice by FAU this season, but UNT only needs to win its bowl game to get the program’s first 10-win season since going 10-1 in 1977 under coach Hayden Fry.
Florida Atlantic: This is the eighth time in Kiffin’s last 14 collegiate seasons that he’s been part of a conference championship, including Southeastern Conference crowns each of the previous three years at Alabama. To put what he’s done at FAU in even more perspective, the Owls have 10 wins in their last 11 games — after winning 10 times in the 39 previous games.
Singletary — whose nickname is “Motor” — has 29 rushing touchdowns on the season, 27 of them coming in the Owls’ last 10 games. The 29 scores is tops among all FBS players this year, and it makes him the sixth player in the 2000s to have that many in a season. The FBS record is 37, set by Barry Sanders for Oklahoma State in 1988.
HE’S NO. 2
Kiffin has 10 wins now at Florida Atlantic — and as strange as this may sound, he’s already No. 2 on the Owls’ career victory list. Howard Schnellenberger won 58 games with the Owls, Kiffin has 10, Charlie Partridge won nine, Carl Pelini won five and Brian Wright had four victories as an interim coach when Pelini got fired during the 2013 season.
Both teams will learn their bowl destinations on Sunday.