The first victory came in the opener as FAU outlasted FCS opponent Wagner for a 7-3 victory. The Owls then returned to their losing ways and lost six in a row with setbacks to Middle Tennessee (31-17), Georgia (56-20), Alabama (40-7), North Texas (20-14), ULM (35-14) and finally South Alabama (37-34), in double overtime. The Owls ended their losing slide at home with a 34-27 victory over Troy and after losing to Navy (24-17) the following week, notched their third win of the season at Western Kentucky (37-28). FAU ended 2012 and its Sun Belt Conference membership with home back-to-back losses to FIU (35-25) and Louisiana (35-21).
2012 was the first year Pelini experienced as the head coach of a collegiate program. He had previously served as the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at Nebraska from 2008-11. He is the older brother of the Cornhuskers' head coach, Bo Pelini.
OFFENSE: Without Alfred Morris in the backfield, FAU began to favor the pass over the run in Pelini's first season with the program. The Owls finished sixth in the SBC in passing offense (237.6 ypg) and ninth in rushing (113.1 ypg). Although the contest resulted in a loss, FAU set a season-high in its final game of the year as it compiled 538 yards of total offense against Louisiana.
The quarterback position was vacated by graduating senior Graham Wilbert, who threw 18 touchdown passes to six interceptions. Senior Melvin German III, who was selected to play in the JUCO MATJC All-Star Game after a stellar year at Pearl River Community College, is the leading candidate to become the Owls' next signal caller. German completed 293-for-453 pass attempts for 3,121 yards and 21 touchdowns, while adding 88 carries for 180 yards rushing and six scores and earning first-team All-Conference and All-America honors both seasons at PRCC.
Junior Stephen Curtis and juco transfer Jaquez Johnson could both see action at quarterback if German III's skill set fails to translate to the FBS level. The FAU quarterbacks were sacked an average of 2.3 times per game last season. They may find themselves under constant pressure once again with only senior left tackle DeAndre Williams (6-5, 290) and junior center Mustafa Johnson (6-3, 295) returning as starters.
Senior running back Jonathan Wallace finished 2012 strong with 479 yards over the last six games. He gained 673 yards rushing and also made 21 grabs for 83 additional yards. Fellow seniors Damian Fortner (335 yards) and Martese Jackson (224 yards) are also back to carry some of the burden out of the backfield.
All of the top wideouts from 2012 return including William Dukes (979 yards, 63 receptions) and Danie McKinney (497 yards, 48 receptions). Dukes's strong campaign in 2012 as a sophomore earned him second team All-Sun Belt honors and the Owls' Offensive MVP honors.
DEFENSE: FAU was a weak squad defensively last season primarily due to its inability to slow down the opposition's rushing attack. It finished 102nd among FBS programs in rush defense with 202.1 yards allowed per game and it surrendered over 260 yards on five separate occasions.
"Well, if it translates, I think our defense should be drastically improved over where it was a year ago," Pelini said. "I think we were performing at a pretty high level by the end of the year, but I don't think we scratched the surface in how good we could be."
The Owls will be led up front by senior defensive end Cory Henry (6-1, 215), who is entering his third year as the starter. Sophomore defensive tackle Trevon Coley showed some flashes of potential as a rookie and could flourish in a starting role.
Senior Adarius Glanton is the key player for the undersized linebacking unit. Randell Johnson (6-4, 230) and Andrae Kirk (6-2, 225) are the other starters for the second tier. Both are fast enough to hold their own in pass coverage.
The secondary appears to be the strongest point of the defense with three returning starters. Senior corner Keith Reaser tied Glanton for the team-high in interceptions in 2012, while also recording 61 tackles. Junior D'Joun Smith will be back at the opposite cornerback position, while senior free safety Jeremy McKnight also brings some valuable experience to the table.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior Mitch Anderson won the starting place kicking job midway through last season and finished 7-of-14 on the field goal tries and 23-of-24 on extra point attempts. Sean Kelly showed some nice touch as a punter last season as a freshman. He downed 16 punts inside the 20-yard line and only had six go into the end zone for a touchback. Kelly averaged only 39.9 yards per punt on the year.
Backup running back Travis Jones finished third in the SBC in punt return yards last year as a junior. He also paced FAU in kick return yards (221) and attempts (11).
OUTLOOK: FAU's progress might be stifled by its move to the Conference USA from the Sun Belt. The Owls do not have any FCS opponents scheduled this season and have a treacherous non-conference slate.
"I don't know if it's either an advantage or a disadvantage," Pelini said at C-USA media day. "It's kind of fun, playing different people in different venues and the whole chess match of it. Looking forward to it."
They begin their season with an in-state battle at Miami-Florida and stay on the road for bouts at East Carolina and South Florida. FAU then has its home opener on Sept. 21 against Middle Tennessee before it hits the road for matchups at Rice and UAB. It will then host Marshall at FAU Stadium for the first time in history. The Owls then take a break from league action to visit Auburn for their third non-conference game of the year. They return to C-USA play to host Tulane and play at Southern Miss in their final road game of the year. FAU then concludes its season at home versus New Mexico State and FIU.
The lack of home games early on is going to really test this group that has proven to be inferior over the past couple of seasons. It will take some time for FAU to rebuild or an unexpected breakout performance before it will be a contender for the C-USA crown.