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Dave Hyde: Lane Kiffin’s magic? You actually wonder if FAU can surprise Oklahoma

Here’s one of those great discussions football people have in bars and backyards over the very situation Lane Kiffin finds his Florida Atlantic team in Saturday at No. 7 Oklahoma:

Shouldn’t you just go for it in unbalanced games like this? Be the jack of spades in the deck – the wild card? Open the full playbook? Like have four different players in four different positions complete passes in the first quarter?

“Yeah, we did that,” said Florida Atlantic running back Devin Singletary, remembering the win against North Texas last December in the Conference USA championship game. “We practiced those plays all week.”

They also converted on fourth-and-2 from their own 29 in the first quarter the next game against Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl. Then went for it on fourth-and-goal at the 4 that same drive. And scored.

“We led the country in fourth-down attempts and fourth-down conversions last year,” Kiffin said. “That’s not just, ‘Oh, he’s an aggressive head coach.’ It’s calculated what we’re doing. That’s analytics. We look at every situation and every scenario.”

These early surprises helped them outscore opponents in first quarters last year, 158-49.

“Every head coach likes to start fast,” Kiffin said. “I think that has to do with how we practice, how we prepared for it and how fresh they are on game day. I think that all plays into it.”

Kiffin, you see, really is the jack of spades on the sideline. He’s the perfect coach to pull the kind of upset Saturday offers. People love to talk of his tweaking of Alabama coach Nick Saban’s cape, of him getting fired on the tarmac by USC and all the time about his Twitter feed.

It’s no wonder, too. Kiffin is different. He’s fun. Sometimes he’s just normal in a way coaches, especially football coaches, aren’t. All that helps explain how he’s done the unexpected in Boca Raton.

His program was picked the sixth “most entertaining” team in college football this year,” by ESPN’s Mark Schlabach. Miami was seventh. “Maybe they had a plan,” Kiffin tweeted about the top-10 teams.

Yes, he was tweeting again Wednesday. For instance, he also responded to his firing on the tarmac being compared to former Jets quarterback Teddy Bridgewater being pulled off a bus after a trade to New Orleans.

Kiffin tweeted: “Feel for u (Bridgewater). At least u got traded not cut! Obstacle is the way @RyanHoliday.”

That last bit is about a motivational book Holiday wrote. Kiffin is big on motivational speakers. Inky Johnson, a former Tennessee player who suffered a paralyzed arm, spoke to the team this week. Former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf, who wasted his football career, did earlier. Jon Gordon, another motivational speaker, has been around the program.

FAU doesn’t need motivation Saturday. It could use a veteran offense, though. That’s where the problem begins in connecting the dots from Kiffin being a calculating gambler to him rolling dice across Oklahoma.

He hasn’t named his quarterback, replaced most of his offense and so doesn’t have the experience to pull the jack-of-spades surprises.

“Especially with the QB, not knowing who it is, is a concern,” Kiffin said. “Once we settled in with everyone (last season), we started to improve and scored more than 30 points every game.”

Does he feel any better about his new receivers right now?

“Not really,” he said.

So that’s that, right?

Well, probably. Or maybe Kiffin is just doing in this instance what any football coach does before a big game. Maybe he’s low-balling his team’s chances against an obviously stronger opponent.

FAU officials talk about their student admission applications being up 40 percent in a year in good part due to the attention Kiffin has brought the school. That’s one form of magic. The football form is what he brings into Saturday.

You want to watch just to see if the improbable becomes possible. If outmanned FAU can hang with Oklahoma. If four players will throw passes in the first quarter. Or they go for it on fourth down in their own territory.

After all, Singletary, asked about getting the ball on fourth down like that, says, “If that’s what’s asked, that’s what we’ll do.”

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Florida Atlantic University coach Lane Kiffin instructs quarterback Rafe Peavey during their scrimmage on August 11, 2018. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Florida Atlantic University coach Lane Kiffin instructs quarterback Rafe Peavey during their scrimmage on August 11, 2018. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

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