55.7 miles and 54 minutes away from the #10 team in our CUSA Football Preview (FAU) are the FIU Panthers.
AL DIAZ / Miami Herald
Wins: FAU, UTEP, Charlotte, Marshall
Losses: Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, UCF, LA Tech, Middle Tennessee, WKU, Old Dominion
Notes: [Previous] head coach Ron Turner showed signs of promise after his first and second seasons with FIU. In 2013, the Panthers went 1-11, and the following season saw an improvement with a 4-8 record. Despite the potential, FIU went 5-7 in 2015 and 0-4 in their first four games of 2016. Turner was fired and defensive coordinator Ron Cooper took the reigns as interim. The Panthers finished 4-8 in 2016.
On November 14, 2016, Butch Davis was hired as FIU's next head coach. Davis' resume boasts experience: having been head coach at North Carolina, Miami (FL) and the Cleveland Browns and assistant coach at Oklahoma State, Miami (FL), and the Dallas Cowboys.
Sam Lewis, ImageReflex
The Panthers will welcome back fourth year-starter quarterback Alex McGough. McGough posted 1,891 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 2016, however, his seasons was cut short due to injuries. He completed 58.4% of his attempts: down from his 64% in 2015. A veteran quarterback is an asset to a team especially with a new head coach, but McGough will have to improve upon his accuracy.
In addition, FIU will return running back Alex Gardner and wide receivers Thomas Owens and Stantley Thomas-Oliver III. In 2016, Gardner ran for 930 yards, 6 touchdowns, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Gardner also had 191 receiving yards. In his junior campaign, Owens had 47 catches for 652 yards while freshman Thomas-Oliver had 35 receptions for 485 yards and 1 touchdown. McGough will definitely have some solid weapons to utilize.
Only two starters return on the offensive line. Kai Absheer will be moving from right guard to left tackle. Daquane Wilkie will return as right tackle. This could be a roadblock in an otherwise experienced offense.
Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire
FIU will return eight starters who started at least six games in 2016. However, defense allowed an average of 34.8 points per game (#104 in the nation), 434.6 yards per game (#84), and 198.8 rushing yards per game (#84). Those numbers could have been worse, and with more experience heading into 2017, defense should be better.
The top three leading tacklers from 2016 return for the 2017 campaign: linebacker Treyvon Williams, linebacker Anthony Wint, and safety Niko Gonzalez. Williams led the team with 109 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 pass breakup, and 1 quarterback hurry. Wint concluded the season with 108 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 pass breakup, 1 fumble recovery, and 2 forced fumbles. Gonzalez had 55 total tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups, and 2 fumble recoveries.
If Williams and Wint can post some stops against the run, defensive end Fermin Silva can prevent some passing plays. Silva had 42 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 pass breakup, 4 quarterback hurries, and 1 fumble recovery in 2016. If Williams, Wint, and Silva are on their A-game, a hurried quarterback may fall victim to corners Isiah Brown and Emmanuel Lubin. Brown had 20 total tackles, 3 interceptions, and 7 pass breakups while Lubin posted 28 total tackles, 1 interception, and 5 pass breakups.
FIU will have a new kicker and a returning punter. Junior Stone Wilson only averaged 37.6 yards per punt; 12 punts were inside of the 20. The return game should be solid with Thomas Owens [and Tony Gaiter IV] on punt returns and Alex Gardner [and Anthony Jones] on kickoff returns.
During Davis' final year with Miami, he led the Hurricanes to a 11-1 record. The following year, the Hurricanes won the BCS National Championship game; although he had departed, Davis was largely credited for putting the program in prime position to win.
FIU hiring Davis was a smart move; in addition to his lengthy resume, Davis has knowledge of the Miami area in terms of recruiting. A complete turnaround in one season seems unlikely, but Davis could be the coach to help the Panthers back to a winning season, eventually. As a bonus, Davis is inheriting a team with solid experience. All of the puzzle pieces are there, now it is just a matter of putting it together.
The Panthers' schedule will be a tough test. From Thursday, August 31 to Saturday, September 30, FIU will have three road games: UCF, Indiana, and Rice. They will also have road games against Middle Tennessee, Marshall, and rival FAU. It wouldn't be surprising if FIU had a few peaks and valleys along the way: losing a winnable game like Rice and upsetting a team like Indiana.
SCHEDULE & PREDICTION
August 31 @ UCF
Sept. 9 vs. Alcorn State
Sept. 16 @ Indiana
Sept. 23 @ Rice
Sept. 30 vs. Charlotte
Oct. 7 @ Middle Tennessee
Oct. 14 vs. Tulane
Oct. 28 @ Marshall
Nov. 4 vs. UTSA
Nov. 11 vs. Old Dominion
Nov. 18 @ FAU
Nov. 24 vs. WKU
Projected Wins: Alcorn State, Indiana, Charlotte, Tulane, FAU
Projected Losses: UCF, Rice, Middle Tennessee, Marshall, UTSA, Old Dominion, WKU