Louisiana-Lafayette opened eyes around the Sun Belt Conference on Oct. 7 with a victory over Houston, a team that fell to the University of Miami by a point.
The victory vaulted the Ragin' Cajuns to a lofty status and reinforced their expectations as the preseason favorite to win the conference.
The hype was not lost on Florida Atlantic.
Minutes after the Owls dispatched Southern Utah last week, players shifted their focus to Lafayette.
''They're coming off a big win versus Houston,'' FAU running back Charles Pierre said.
``We're going to prepare as best as we can and try to win the game against these guys again.''
Last year, the Owls prevailed 28-10 at Lafayette, one of the team's two victories all season. FAU trailed 10-7 in that game before it scored the game's final 21 points.
The loss denied the Ragin' Cajuns a berth in the New Orleans Bowl. Lafayette tied Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State, both of which defeated FAU, with a 5-2 conference record, and Arkansas State won the tiebreaker for the bowl bid.
The Ragin' Cajuns built off that loss. After a three-point loss to Arkansas State the following week, Lafayette finished with five consecutive victories.
After dropping its first two games of 2006 to Louisiana State and Texas A&M, the Ragin' Cajuns won three in a row entering tonight's game. Quarterback Jerry Babb, the first player to win Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week honors three consecutive times, leads Lafayette's option-based attack with 499 yards passing and four touchdowns. A dual threat, Babb also has 165 yards and four touchdowns rushing.
The Owls (2-4, 1-0) faced a similar offense last week.
''The preparation has gone really well,'' FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger said. ``It needs to go really well because, as we've studied the films on Lafayette, we've witnessed a much-improved football team over last year. Obviously, anybody that can beat a team of Houston's stature certainly has to be reckoned with. We've got to somehow keep the errors out of our offense.''
FAU's offense has led the program's turnaround. After four consecutive losses to open the season, the Owls defeated Monroe with a timely offensive performance and cruised last week.
Quarterback Sean Clayton, who earned the starting job after a strong relief appearance in the season opener, has thrown for 688 yards and four touchdowns. The former Michigan State tight end also has run for 135 yards.
The Owls improved defensively as well. After allowing 192 total points in the four losses against Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and South Carolina, FAU yielded just 26 points in its two wins.
''I think they're a very physical football team,'' Lafayette coach Ricky Bustle said. ``I think their offense is very even. They throw as well as they run. They really keep you off balance and do a great job with the play-action pass because they do run the ball so well.''
The winner of tonight's game will still have that its goal of a bowl in its sights - because the SBC has a berth to the New Orleans Bowl - while the loser will face a tougher road.
"We have a lot of confidence and momentum and the rest of the games are conference games," FAU running back Charles Pierre said. "If we could win out that would be tremendous."
Louisiana-Lafayette has won its past three games, and FAU is brimming with confidence after winning its conference opener on the road.
"I'm really proud of this football team and where they are today," Schnellenberger said. "If we would have said at the beginning of the year we would be right here, we would be happy with that. We would have liked to have one of the first games, but it turned out we're not ready to do that yet, but that's the last time I have to say that."
La.-Lafayette at FAU
When: 7:30 p.m. TV: ESPN2 Radio: 640-AM, 1450-AM
Records: ULL 3-2, 0-0 Sun Belt Conference; FAU 2-4, 1-0.
Key matchup: ULL quarterback Jerry Babb vs. FAU defensive line.ULL is ranked No. 10 in rushing with 209 yards per game thanks to Babb's option attack. FAU has faced similar offenses the past two games.
Key Question: Did the Owls have enough time to prepare for the Ragin' Cajuns? FAU played its last game Thursday, so it had to hurry to get a gameplan ready for ULL. The Ragin' Cajunshad a bye last week. The advantage goes to ULL.
Prediction: Louisiana-Lafayette 28, FAU 17
Directions: From I-95, exit at West Commercial Boulevard, go west a half-mile and turn right onto Oriole Boulevard, stadium is on the left. Stadium info
From Florida's Turnpike, exit at West Commercial Boulevard, go east about 3 miles and turn left onto Oriole Boulevard, stadium is on the left.
Tickets: (866) FAU-OWLS, (561) 966-3309 or www.ticketmaster.com