Coach Howard Schnellenberger previously took two established programs and turned them into powerhouses. He has added to his successful reputation by building Florida Atlantic from the ground up and helping it reach the postseason for the first time.
Schnellenberger hopes to lead the Owls to a triumphant end to their historic season when they meet Memphis in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 21 at the Superdome (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).
The 73-year-old Schnellenberger, known for his success with Miami (Fla.) and Louisville, was hired in May 1998 before Florida Atlantic (7-5) even had a football program.
Now in their seventh year of existence and third as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Owls look for the first bowl victory in school history to go with their first league title. That happened on Dec. 1, beating Troy 38-32 to win the Sun Belt Conference.
"It's a reward for all the things that they've done to this point, but more importantly than that, it's still part of the mission that all the kids came here for," said Schnellenberger, named the Sun Belt's coach of the year.
Schnellenberger seeks to improve to 5-0 as a head coach in bowl games, though he has not appeared in one since leading Louisville to a Liberty Bowl win over Michigan State in 1993. His most notable postseason appearance was a 1983 Orange Bowl win over Nebraska that gave Miami a national championship.
Schnellenberger's Owls won their final two games of the season on the road to finish with a 6-1 conference record. They now look to win three straight for the first time since the 2004 season - their last in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).
"Our goals were to win our conference and beat one of the big teams out of the conference. And we did both of that," quarterback Rusty Smith said. "We made it to a bowl game. This is simply just additional stuff."
Smith was the Sun Belt player of the year, having led the conference with 3,352 passing yards and a school-record 27 touchdowns while throwing only eight interceptions. The redshirt sophomore set a school record with 463 passing yards and five TDs in a Sept. 15 victory over Big Ten foe Minnesota.
His favorite target has been Cortez Gent, who had a career-high 155 yards and a touchdown on eight catches in the conference-clinching win over Troy. He has 1,030 receiving yards and nine TDs in 11 games after totaling just 66 yards in nine games as a redshirt freshman last season.
"They feel that they have done what they set out to do and they're a complete success at this moment," Schnellenberger said.
Memphis (7-5) is feeling just as successful, heading into its fourth bowl game in five seasons and second such appearance in New Orleans. The Tigers beat Sun Belt foe North Texas 27-17 in that 2003 game, and moved to 4-1 in bowls by beating Akron 38-31 to win the 2005 Motor City Bowl in their most recent postseason appearance.
It appeared Memphis would miss out on bowl season for a second straight year after opening 2-4 this season following its 2-10 record in 2006. However, the Tigers bounced back to win five of their final six games, finishing tied for the second-best record in Conference USA at 6-2.
"What a great reward for this football team," Tigers coach Tommy West said. "For this team to come together the way it did this year and battle back from so many adversities; this bowl invitation is a tribute to what they have accomplished and overcome."
The Tigers capped the regular season by winning the longest game in school history, 55-52 in triple overtime against Southern Methodist on Nov. 24.
Quarterback Martin Hankins completed 30 of 59 passes for 336 yards and a season high-tying four TDs, including three to Carlos Singleton in third quarter. Hankins threw for 2,939 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games this season.
While Singleton led the Tigers with 10 touchdown catches, Duke Calhoun led the team with 58 receptions for 850 yards.
AccuScore has powered more than 10,000 simulations for every College Football game on ESPN.com, calculating how each team's performance changes in response to game conditions and opponent's abilities. Each game is simulated and the game is replayed a minimum of 10,000 times to generate forecasted winning percentages.
Florida Atlantic didn't even start playing football until 2001. Now, the Owls are going to a bowl after winning a share of the Sun Belt title. Veteran coach Howard Schnellenberger has brought this program along quicker than anyone could have imagined. Memphis started out 2-4 and went through the tragic shooting death on campus of one of its players, Taylor Bradford. But the Tigers rebounded to win five of their last six games. -- Chris Low