AUBURN, Ala. — As we do every Thursday evening, the War Eagle Extra blog was able to track down a beat writer for Auburn's opponent this weekend. Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach), who covers Florida Atlantic for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., took time to answer five questions about the Owls before they square off against the Tigers on Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Ryan Black: How do you gauge the progress of Florida Atlantic from Year 1 to Year 2 under Carl Pelini's stewardship? There's little question he took over a rebuilding program, but do you feel the gains made thus far are enough to get the Owls turned back in the right direction?
Dieter Kurtenbach: I wouldn't call what Carl Pelini inherited a "rebuilding" program. It was rock-bottom — 1-11 with two years of nearly non-existent recruiting leading into it. With that in mind, what he's done to get this team competitive is impressive. Pelini has done a good job in developing talent and finding under-recruited players, and while I don't quite know if there is a book or a model to follow, it's my sense that the program is ahead of schedule. That first year, last season, could have been really, really bad considering what he was bequeathed.
If FAU can get four more wins this season (I'll get to that later) that would obviously be huge for the program, but I still think next year, Pelini's third, will be the most telling.
FAU is still looking for two watershed events to help it establish some staying power: A win over a big-time, BCS-level opponent and the signing of a top-15 prospect from any of the three talent-rich counties of South Florida. I don't see either of those happening this season, but they seem possible now.
Black: Last week was the Owls' first open date of the season; did you think it fell at a good time, allowing them to recover from their come-from-ahead loss to Marshall? Or do you think they would have preferred another game last week to get more live reps prior to facing Auburn?
Kurtenbach: FAU started its season with seven straight games, five of which were on the road. I don't put too much credence into it being the right time or wrong time for a bye week — it's not like the schedule is manipulatable mid-year — but having that tough stretch to start certainly made last week a nice respite. At this juncture in the season, health is more important than reps.
Black: What happened to Nexon Dorvilus? He was named to the Mackey Award watch list during the summer and seemed to be (on paper) one of two players the offense could count on entering the year along with receiver William Dukes. But looking at the stat sheet, it shows the senior tight end hasn't started a game this season and isn't even listed on FAU's "two-deep notables" in its game notes. So what's the deal?
Kurtenbach: Dorvilus was straight-up beat out for his starting tight end job, and being around the program, it really wasn't surprising. Dorvilus is a strong player who seems to have CFL written all over him, but Northern Iowa transfer Darion Howard was the better option from the moment he strapped on a FAU helmet for the first time. Howard is a superior blocker and is capable of the same athletic catches as Dorvilus, but he carries an extra 30 pounds. FAU uses a lot of 11 personnel, so the snaps just haven't been there for Dorvilus. Don't write him off, though; FAU loves going to a 12-set in the red zone, moving Dorvilus into the slot with Howard moving back-and-forth between H-back and the six-technique.
Black: Poring over D'Joun Smith's numbers, it's hard to believe how big a lead he has on everyone else in Conference USA in passes defended. What makes the junior corner so good? And was he expected to be the team's "breakout" player this year? Looking at his previous two seasons, Smith's 2013 campaign seems to have materialized out of thin air.
Kurtenbach: Smith has always been the most talented player on the team, but the enigmatic and charismatic junior's mind finally got in line with his physical abilities. "Focus" is such a overarching cliche, but when Smith tells me he's more focused, I believe him. He's matured supremely in the past year and when Keith Reaser was in the lineup, Smith was thrown against a lot — producing those impressive numbers. With Reaser out for the season with a torn ACL (a shame, because he was looking NFL-worthy), I doubt Smith is tested much going forward.
Black: Florida Atlantic is just past the midpoint of its season, standing at 2-5 overall and 1-4 in the C-USA. How does this align to where you'd thought they'd be, and how do you forecast the rest of the Owls' season unfolding?
Kurtenbach: I was on the record saying that FAU would start the season 0-10, but that they would improve from last season. It's not all about wins and losses, but the wins have helped. FAU's jump from the Sun Belt to Conference USA was rough, schedule-wise, and I didn't expect USF to be the tire fire it is. A 2-5 record is a bonus when compared to preseason prognostication, but in contrast to the performances that FAU has turned in the first seven weeks of the season, it's a disappointment. I'm not sure another team in the country has lost three times in the final three minutes of regulation or in overtime this season. FAU could easily be entering this game 5-2, but that's growing pains for ya.
Looking forward, FAU needs to win four of its final five games. The Owls end the season with three of the worst teams in college football: Southern Miss, New Mexico State and FIU. If they lose any of those games, they have no right to be in a bowl game, anyway. So basically the season comes down to a win-one-of-two scenario against Auburn and Tulane. I think Saturday's game will be more interesting than many believe it will be, but I don't expect that must-have win to come at Jordan-Hare. If anyone is remotely interested in my FAU-Tulane prediction, I suggest you hit up SunSentinel.com next week (so I guess this is goodbye).