FAU, UCF and the fine art of trolling

Lane Kiffin has turned Florida Atlantic into a winner, but his social media activity has brought the coach and the school headlines. Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP Photo

How to increase national exposure for your Group of 5 program in three easy steps:

Step 1: Get active on Twitter

Step 2: Make bold (albeit sometimes controversial) declarations

Step 3: Troll Alabama

OK, so it's not that simple. But if UCF and Florida Atlantic have anything in common beyond their home state, it is the way both programs have embraced outside-the-box thinking to take aim at the more serious college football establishment.

Lane Kiffin started it when he took over at FAU in 2017, using social media to build a brand, make some jokes and poke Alabama as often as possible (#ratpoison, anyone?). UCF athletic director Danny White took the baton in late December, when he self-proclaimed UCF as national champion after it completed an undefeated season.

As a result, UCF and FAU are no longer forgotten commuter schools toiling in the long shadows cast by Miami, Florida and Florida State in a football-rich state. UCF and FAU are the two hottest programs not only in Florida, but beyond its borders, too.

The two have expanded their reach so much that FAU and UCF headline Friday night football on ESPN (7 p.m. ET).

"What people don't realize is when we do things that are on the front of ESPN.com or SportsCenter or USA Today, that is millions of dollars of free advertising," Kiffin said in a phone interview this week. "It's like buying free ads for your university.

"That's what people don't understand, when they say, 'Well, why do they do certain things, or Twitter or whatever it is.' There's a plan behind a lot of those things. Our out-of-state applications are up 45 percent within one year and the only thing that changed was our football program."

So how did UCF and FAU get here?

When the schools agreed to play a home-and-home series in January 2015, Kiffin was out recruiting another stellar class to Alabama and White was busy remaking the University of Buffalo athletic department as its AD. The news that UCF and FAU would play in 2018 and 2019 barely registered in the national media, even though UCF was only a season removed from beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

There is a simple reason their matchup failed to resonate. Not only did both schools belong in non-power conferences, FAU hit a steep decline in the final years under Howard Schnellenberger and could not figure out a way out of its tailspin. The program that Schnellenberger founded with visions of grandeur had essentially been grounded.

Then it got worse, at least for UCF. The Knights went 0-12 in 2015.

Their twin failures led both programs to leaders unafraid to challenge norms and authority: Kiffin and White. Kiffin, known for his own failures at previous head-coaching stops, brought the type of cachet FAU desperately needed to boost its program, even though he brought oversized baggage with him.

But he also brought an offensive game plan that meshed with the athletes on his FAU roster, plus a blue-blood résumé that made him attractive despite his foibles. In Year 1, FAU went 11-3, but perhaps more memorable than the record was everything surrounding Kiffin: the tweets, the hashtags, the literal Lane Train rolling through campus.

FAU athletic director Brian White, who happens to be Danny's brother, was hired in March and said with a smile, "He's done an incredible job. Just the national exposure for me, that was a huge attraction. He's having fun, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. He's got a great sense of humor. He tweeted at me, and I gained a whole bunch of followers, and I thought it was great. The more the better."

At UCF, Danny White hired Scott Frost, and within two years 0-12 turned into 13-0. When White declared the Knights national champions after beating Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, he unleashed a debate that still rankles today.

When Kiffin referred to UCF as the national champs in previewing this week's game, he drew the ire of Alabama fans -- the same way White did with the self-declaration, though he is quick to point out he meant no offense to anyone in Alabama. "We were very purposeful," White said. "We did not want to disrespect what Alabama accomplished or what Georgia accomplished. It's not about them. It's not their fault there's not an eight-team or 16-team playoff."

"I've always been aggressive my whole career," White explained. "Once you know the right thing to do to really elevate a place, you've just got to do it. You understand there's going to be people that criticize you. That's part of the job. If I sat back and did nothing, I'd still get criticism. That's inevitable."

Self-declaring a championship seemed a bold move, mostly because it's a tactic that no previous undefeated Group of 5 school had used. But it worked. Receiver Dredrick Snelson, who grew up in South Florida, saw the new exposure first-hand over the summer.

"Some people said we're not national champs, stop acting like it. They said you don't play nobody. But we're going to play whoever lines up in front of us," Snelson said. "We can't control who we play, so consider us national champs, if that's what people want to say."

It's as if UCF took a page out of the Kiffin handbook without actually knowing it. Then in April, Kiffin weighed in and said there's no way to know whether Alabama would beat UCF if the two had played last season.

Kiffin being Kiffin.

And now here the programs are, in a nationally televised game on Friday night. Kiffin's calling it "The Against All Odds'" game because his squad is facing a UCF team with the nation's longest winning streak (15 games), on short rest and on the road.

That name fits for another reason.

"When this game was signed, I'm sure no one would have thought this would have been the ESPN doubleheader," Kiffin said. "It's not like it's Tuesday night where they're trying to get anybody to play. This is a Friday night doubleheader followed by USC."

The same USC that fired Kiffin in 2013, his last head-coaching job before FAU took a flier on him.