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Clash of the titans: Littrell, Kiffin bring offensive prowess to UNT-FAU showdown

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Long before Seth Littrell took over as head coach at North Texas, he was considered an offensive guru in college football.

Littrell built and coached productive spread systems  as a coordinator at Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina.

In that way, he's a lot like Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin, whose Owls will take on the red-hot Mean Green in a key Conference USA showdown on Saturday in Boca Raton.

Kiffin helped guide Alabama to the national title in 2015 as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator and was an offensive-minded head coach at Southern Cal and Tennessee in addition to coaching the Oakland Raiders before arriving at FAU for the 2017 season.

"This could be fun," UNT offensive lineman T.J. Henson said. "They are both great offensive minds. Even as a player, that's what I think will be the biggest showdown — Kiffin and Littrell. The game plan will be the battle."

The numbers back up the point.

UNT (4-2) enters this week's game leading Conference USA in scoring with an average of 37.2 points per game and at 3-0 is on top of the league's West Division.

The Mean Green have already won two games with last-minute drives. The Mean Green drove 98 yards in 57 seconds without the benefit of a timeout last week and knocked off Texas-San Antonio 29-26 when Rico Bussey caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Mason Fine with 10 seconds left.

Kiffin's Owls (3-3) have been nearly as impressive and rank second in the league with an average of 34.2 points per game. FAU's average of 258.7 rushing yards per game is by far the best in C-USA. The Owls are tied with Marshall atop the league's East Division at 2-0.

"When I was at Arizona, he was at USC," Littrell said of Kiffin. "He did a great job there offensively as well and is very creative. He's known as a great offensive mind for a reason. Everywhere he has been he has been very successful."

The same is true of Littrell. He helped UNT improve its scoring average by 9.6 points per game in his debut campaign last fall and appears to be holding to his career tendency of guiding his team to a big jump in his second year.

UNT's scoring average is up 12.4 points over the 24.8 points it put up in 2016.

"He's the puppet master behind the scenes," UNT quarterback Mason Fine said. "He pulls the strings and gives our coaches confidence. From our coaches, that confidence goes to the players."

North Texas sophomore wide receiver Rico Bussey, Jr. (8) narrowly escapes Texas-San Antonio defensive back Devron Davis on his way to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown to cap a 98-yard in the final minute of a 29-26 win at Apogee Stadium. The drive was another sign of progress for UNT offensively under head coach Seth Littrell. DRC
North Texas sophomore wide receiver Rico Bussey, Jr. (8) narrowly escapes Texas-San Antonio defensive back Devron Davis on his way to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown to cap a 98-yard in the final minute of a 29-26 win at Apogee Stadium. The drive was another sign of progress for UNT offensively under head coach Seth Littrell. 
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Building something special

Littrell has seemingly pulled all the right strings since he arrived at UNT before the 2016 season to take over a 1-11 team that had struggled offensively.

UNT scored just 15.2 points per game in 2015, but has been on the rise ever since, both offensively and in terms of wins and losses. The Mean Green finished 5-8 last season after falling to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and are on course to return to the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since a run of four straight bowl games from 2001-04.

The Mean Green's improvement can be attributed in part to Littrell's system, but his players say that is just part of the picture.

"It goes beyond the Xs and Os," Henson said. "It's what he implements with his team. You look at our mantra, 'Selfless, tough and disciplined.' It's all the little things that make the difference. He's big on doing everything the right way. You finish plays and blocks, do what you are told to do and do it well. There are two things you can control — attitude and effort. He harps on that."

That attention to detail was on display during UNT's game-winning drive against UTSA last week. The Mean Green had no room for error on when they took over at their 2-yard line with 1:07 left while trailing 26-22.

UNT quickly put together a nearly flawless seven-play drive that showed exactly what Littrell has built.

Fine was under siege the entire drive and was drilled while delivering the game-winning touchdown pass. He didn't have time to spot Bussey heading into his break.

Fine threw it to a spot based on the countless hours UNT's players had drilled on that play and situation. Bussey was right there, grabbed the ball and scored from 22 yards out.

"Continuity has helped," UNT running back Jeffery Wilson said. "We understand the offense and what the coaches are trying to accomplish. We know what we have to do to be successful."

The fact that Fine threw that pass to Bussey also illustrates Littrell's impact. Littrell was the only coach at a Football Bowl Subdivision school to offer a scholarship to Fine, a two-time Gatorade Oklahoma Player of the Year.

Other schools were scared off by Fine's size. He was only 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds at the time.

He looks plenty big enough now and leads C-USA with 1,796 passing yards and 14 touchdowns.

Fine is far from the only key offensive player UNT has added since Littrell arrived. Trinity Valley Community College transfer and former Notre Dame signee Jalen Guyton leads C-USA in receiving yards with 626 and receiving touchdowns with seven in his first year with the Mean Green.

Guyton was added to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation's top receiver this week.

Guyton is the exception to the rule. Most of UNT's key offensive players are in their second year in Littrell's system, when his teams usually make a big jump.

North Carolina improved by 8.9 points per game in Littrell's second season in 2015. Indiana jumped by 7.6 points per game in Littrell's second year, while Arizona improved by 2.6 points.

"Year two you can put a lot more on your players," Littrell said. "Year one you try to keep it simple so that they can at least play fast. You also know your personnel, who you want to get the ball to and who your quarterback is."

Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin congratulates running back Devin Singletary after he scored a touchdown in a loss to Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 9 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)Getty Images
Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin congratulates running back Devin Singletary after he scored a touchdown in a loss to Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 9 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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A mirror image of improvement

FAU is in the midst of a similar revival as a program, thanks largely to Kiffin's offensive prowess.

The Owls are still early in the rebuilding process when compared to UNT and Littrell, but have improved their scoring average by 7.8 points per game.

Kiffin differs from Littrell in that he had extensive head coaching experience before arriving at FAU, but faces a similar challenge. He is also trying to prove he can be a successful head coach.

Kiffin enjoyed some high points as a head coach including guiding USC to a 10-2 finish in 2011, when the Trojans finished the season ranked No. 6 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.

He endured some tough times as well. Now-retired USC athletic director Pat Haden famously called Kiffin off the team bus and fired him at Los Angeles International Airport following a loss to Arizona State in 2013.

Saban parted ways with Kiffin before Alabama's showdown with Clemson in last season's national title game. Kiffin had already accepted the job at FAU, but was expected to call the plays in the biggest game of the year.

Kiffin spoke about the opportunity taking over at FAU provided at C-USA media days.

"If this doesn't work out, he's just a great play-caller," Kiffin said of how he'll be perceived in college football if he doesn't succeed at FAU. "If it goes the other way, people may look at it differently. I am not doing this job so people can say whether I can be a head coach or not, but this job will define a lot of that perception."

Kiffin is off to a promising start with a team that finished 3-9 last season. The Owls have scored 96 points combined in back-to-back wins.

FAU beat Middle Tennessee 38-20 and then blasted Old Dominion 58-28 in its last outing two weeks ago.

The 58 points FAU scored were a program record, while the eight rushing touchdowns the Owls scored were the top total for an FBS team in a game against another FBS team through the first six weeks of the season.

FAU's players had a feeling they were on their way to a special season weeks ago when Kiffin made his C-USA debut at media days.

"All of us know about the success he has had," FAU safety Azeez Al-Shaair said. "He is going to help us a lot. He has brought in a lot of players and has given us a chance to have a breakout year."

FAU is on its way to reaching that goal as it enters a showdown between a pair of coaches who built national reputations as offensive gurus.

One will take another step toward showing how his success building offenses will translate to being an up-and-coming head coach in a game between two of the hottest teams in C-USA on Saturday.

"These matchups are a lot of fun," Littrell said. "It forces you to be prepared every week. If you aren't, you won't win."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

Offensive masterminds of C-USA

North Texas coach Seth Littrell and Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin are both seen as offensive gurus in college football. Here's a look at both of them:

Category Seth Littrell Lane Kiffin
Age 39 42
Alma mater Oklahoma Fresno State
College position Fullback Quarterback
Head coaching jobs North Texas (2016-present) Oakland Raiders (2007-08)
Tennessee (2009)
USC (2010-13)
Florida Atlantic (2017-present)
Coaching record 9-10 5-15 (NFL)
38-24 (college)

FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas head coach Seth Littrell extends his hand to students after the team's season-opening win over Lamar at Apogee Stadium (Jake King/DRC)