Odds are, the Owls will be earning that money.
Over the next two weekends, the Owls — a program with just two wins in the last 22 months — may as well be considered temporary members of the Southeastern Conference. They visit No. 7 Georgia (2-0) on Saturday, then hit the road again next weekend to face No. 1 Alabama, getting $1 million each time for games that will be widely expected as routs.
“It’s not an atmosphere we see every day,” FAU quarterback Graham Wilbert said.
Not even close. Georgia’s home opener two weeks ago drew 92,446 fans. FAU drew 87,824 — for its entire home schedule a year ago.
The only time Florida Atlantic has squared off with a top-10 team was Oct. 6, 2007, at home against then-No. 6 South Florida. The Owls were within a touchdown until the final minute, falling 35-23. That was before FAU (1-1) entered this current rebuilding phase, one that saw the Owls go 1-11 last season and struggle to beat lower-division Wagner 7-3 in its home opener this year.
If Wagner took FAU to the limit, imagine what might happen at Georgia, which is about a six-touchdown favorite.
“They’re one of the better teams in the country and we have our work cut out for us,” said FAU coach Carl Pelini, whose team lost 31-17 at Middle Tennessee last week. “But for me, where we are right now, it’s not as much about the opponent as it is about us and getting our guys to get better. We’re not a very good fundamental football team. We need to keep working on that and just worry about getting better day to day.”
Like just about every programs that isn’t flush with tons of extra cash, FAU has a history of having to play these guarantee games to help its athletic department coffers. The Owls have played at places like Florida, Texas, South Carolina and Auburn in recent years, as well as Nebraska, where Pelini was defensive coordinator until replacing Howard Schnellenberger as FAU’s coach after last season.
So Pelini understands why it helps the school to make $1 million this Saturday and another $1 million next Saturday.
That doesn’t mean he has to sound enthused, either.
“I don’t think it’s good for college football but I understand the reality of why schools have to play those games budgetarily,” Pelini said. “What I think was irresponsible of this scheduling was not Georgia or not playing the No. (7) team, it’s that Georgia is not in any way shape or form similar to any of our opponents in the Sun Belt. What happens is you end up preparing for that game and there is not any carryover into your conference play.”
While Pelini’s argument is surely valid, these next two weeks may have seemed more nostalgic for FAU if Schnellenberger was still coaching the Owls.
He coached Georgia coach Mark Richt when Richt played at the University of Miami, about an hour down the road from FAU’s home in Boca Raton. And Schnellenberger has ties to Alabama as well, having worked there under Bear Bryant in the 1960s and recruiting a quarterback named Joe Namath to the school.
“When he came to Miami, we weren’t very good,” Richt said of Schnellenberger, who still works within FAU’s athletic department. “And one thing about coach is he knew a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds could be motivated to do just about anything. He turned us around. He helped the culture of that program and helped us believe that we could win. ... I’m certain that Florida Atlantic will be thinking the same way.”
Richt told the story Wednesday of how Schnellenberger took a Miami team into Penn State in 1979, a game no one expected the Hurricanes to win, and came out with a 26-10 victory. Given how Louisiana-Monroe — like FAU, a Sun Belt school — shocked then-No. 8 Arkansas last weekend, it might be safe to think that Richt could share that tale with his own team sometime before kickoff on Saturday.
And Richt doesn’t expect FAU to fear what would seem to be an enormous two-week challenge. Since Nov. 20, 2010, FAU has lost 15 of its 17 games. Over that same span, Georgia and Alabama are a combined 28-7.
“I think they’re more excited about playing, would be my guess,” Richt said of the Owls.
For their part, the Owls say that’s exactly the case.
“It’s motivation,” FAU linebacker David Hinds said. “But the way this team is built, we’re just focused on ourselves.”