Owls set their sights high

FAU, which finished third in the Sun Belt last season, said it won't accept anything less than a conference title.

 

The BCS National Championship logo is on the cover of the Florida Atlantic media guide.

The odds are strongly against Howard Schnellenberger's team reaching such lofty heights, but give him credit for having confidence.

Schnellenberger's seventh FAU team took the field for the first time Friday, one of the last teams in the nation to open camp.

Although the odds are unlikely that the Owls will reach the national championship game at the New Orleans Superdome, FAU is aiming toward winning its league championship and playing in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 21.

It won't be easy, but with 17 starters returning from a 5-7 team, FAU figures to be in the hunt for the Sun Belt title.

''The morale, the leadership and the confidence level is so much better than last year,'' sophomore quarterback Rusty Smith said. ``We finished third in the conference last year, and we won't accept anything less than first this year. Everyone believes in that.''

Schnellenberger liked what he saw in Friday's opening practice in Boca Raton, adding that while his team wasn't as crisp as he would have liked, it was OK for an opener.

''They didn't practice with a lot of precision, but they practiced hard. Precision will come,'' Schnellenberger said. ``I like the look of the signees and the preferred walk-ons. They upped our average weight a lot. It was a good first day.''

The Owls are preparing for a season opener that is three weeks away. In the past, FAU opened with bigger opponents such as Hawaii and Kansas. In reality, the Owls might have a much more important foe Sept. 1 at Lockhart Stadium.

Not only will FAU open at home for the first time since its inaugural game in 2001 against Slippery Rock, but a win would help the Owls in their quest for a Sun Belt title.

The opponent: Middle Tennessee, last season's co-conference champion. Troy, which represented the league in the New Orleans Bowl, is considered the favorite to return to The Big Easy.

''We have a chance to get better and that's really exciting,'' senior defensive end Josh Pinnick said. ``We're out here now and things are really rolling. We're trying to get the most out of each day. The only thing that's going to be acceptable around here is the conference championship. If we don't win that, it's going to be bad news around here.

``Losing isn't an option.''

THIS AND THAT

 Sophomore receiver Avery Holley has been cleared after undergoing shoulder surgery last winter. The former Pompano Beach Blanche Ely standout played the entire 2006 season, but the injured shoulder cost him a good portion of the Owls' basketball season.

Holley, who caught 18 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns last year, is expected to be a big part of the FAU passing attack. Holley also will return kicks.

''I got cleared four days ago so my shoulder's 100 percent,'' Holley said. ``I felt real good out there today.''

 The Owls sustained no injuries during Friday's practice, but one of last year's starters wasn't in uniform -- and isn't expected back.

Wide receiver Frantz Simeon, a redshirt junior, is out because of academic reasons.

''He didn't pass a test he was supposed to,'' Schnellenberger said.

Simeon led FAU with 35 catches for 590 yards and a touchdown last year. He also returned 15 kickoffs for an average of 13.4 yards.