No. 109: Florida International
By Paul Myerberg // May 17, 2010
The overwhelming majority of the F.B.S. had the luxury of going through their respective growing pains as a program back in the early 20th century, back when the telegraph was the quickest form of communication and radio — let alone sports talk radio — was in its infancy. On the other hand, Florida International’s struggles have come in the age of 24-7 sports networks, the boom of the Internet and the birth of the fully informed fan, placing the program’s inability to climb out of the doldrums under a sizable microscope. Was the microscope even invented when Rutgers and Princeton ushered in this great game in 1869?
Boca Raton, Fla.
10 (6 offense, 4 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
at Texas A&M
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 16
at North Texas
- Oct. 30
at Florida Atlantic
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 20
- Nov. 27
- Dec. 4
Last year’s prediction
Unfortunately, despite F.I.U.’s rapid climb under Cristobal, I still believe they are outside the top tier of the Sun Belt, an area populated by Troy and Florida Atlantic. The Golden Panthers are likely closer to Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State, two teams that return a good amount of talent in 2009. F.I.U. is a program on the rise, but I see them matching last fall’s 5-7 record, with a one-game improvement to 4-4 in the Sun Belt. That would leave them battling A.S.U. and the Blue Raiders for third in the conference.
In a nutshell When taken on the heels of F.I.U.’s five-win finish in 2008, last fall’s 3-9 record represents a meaningful step back for one of the youngest programs in the F.B.S. No, few projected Florida International as a bowl team, even in a weak Sun Belt and even considering the surprisingly large improvement it made in coach Mario Cristobal’s second season with the program. Yet the Golden Panthers are at best treading water – and that may be kind when looking at the team’s disappointing showing on both sides of the ball in 2009.
High point A 20-17 overtime win over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Panthers went 3-3 during a mid-season stretch, with the additional pair of victories coming against Western Kentucky and North Texas.
Low point F.I.U. against lost to conference and in-state rival Florida Atlantic, giving the Panthers four straight defeats in the series and a head-to-head mark of 1-7. Six losses in its first seven essentially doomed F.I.U. to its poor finish.
Tidbit As noted in last year’s preview, F.I.U. is one of only two programs in the F.B.S. with a career winning percentage under .400 (Kent State remains the other) and is the only program with a winning percentage under .300. After last season, F.I.U. holds a career mark of 24-68 — a winning percentage of .261. Losing 23 games in 24 tries from 2006-7 hurts. Currently 44 games below .500, it would take 15 consecutive 8-5 seasons for F.I.U. to bring its career winning percentage above .500; if it could do so, F.I.U. would be 144-143 in 2025.
Former players in the N.F.L.
2 LB Antwan Barnes (Baltimore), WR Chandler Williams (Kansas City).
Arbitrary top five list
Best quarterbacks in Miami Dolphins history
1. Dan Marino. All-time record holder in many categories.
2. Bob Griese. Led Miami to victories in Super Bowl VII and VIII.
3. Don Strock. Played for the Dolphins from 1973-87.
4. Jay Fiedler. Best Jewish quarterback in franchise history.
5. Chad Pennington. Led Miami to the playoffs in 2008.
Mario Cristobal (Miami ’93), 9-27 after three seasons with the Golden Panthers. Though last season certainly marked a misstep, most of the damage to Cristobal’s career record came in his first season, 2007, when F.I.U. finished 1-11; its lone victory came over North Texas, who finished 2-10, in the season finale. Hopes of a successful season were subsequently low entering 2008, but the Golden Panthers responded with a 5-7 finish, the program’s best since entering the F.B.S. Included among those five victories were wins over Toledo – the program’s first F.B.S. win over a non-Sun Belt school – Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas State, three teams that combined to win 14 games in 2008. That success raises an important question: was 2008 indicative of Cristobal’s ability to run this team, or are the 1-11 record of 2007 and last season’s 3-9 finish more in line with future expectations? One area where Cristobal shines is in recruiting, as evidenced by the team’s stellar classes in 2009 and 2010. This is likely a result of his strong ties to the Miami area, the place where he was born, played his college ball and where he began his coaching career. From 1998-2000, Cristobal was a graduate assistant under Butch Davis at the University of Miami; those Hurricane teams finished a combined 29-8 and won a pair of Big East championships. From there, Cristobal followed Miami defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to Rutgers, where he coached the offensive line and tight ends from 2001-3. Though he left the school to return to Miami prior to the 2004 season, Cristobal was responsible for recruiting many of the players who would be key to the Scarlet Knights’ turnaround from conference doormat to annual bowl participants. After three seasons back at Miami, first as tight ends coach (2004-5), next as offensive line coach (2006), F.I.U. tabbed Cristobal to replace former coach Don Strock. While it’s hard to imagine he could have done a better job in his second season, Florida International’s follow-up campaign last fall raises questions about Cristobal’s long-term ability to bring the Golden Panthers into the top half of the Sun Belt.
Tidbit (coordinators edition) Cristobal welcomes in a pair of new coordinators in 2010: Scot Satterfield on offense, Geoff Collins on defense. Satterfield was most recently the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator at Toledo, where he helped lead the Rockets to the 13th-best passing offense in the country. His task will be far easier than the rebuilding project Collins will undertake with the nation’s 119th-worst defense, which allowed 491.5 yards per game a year ago. Collins comes to F.I.U. from Central Florida, where he served as George O’Leary’s linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. As anyone who has seen the O’Leary-led Knights, the defense has never been a problem. Collins also earned praise for his enthusiastic recruiting.
Players to watch
F.I.U. returns all the pieces of its receiver corps, including the wildly athletic junior T.Y. Hilton. He is likely the most explosive player in the Sun Belt, as a receiver, ball-carrier and return man. Hilton’s numbers took a slight step back in 2009, though he did led the team in receptions (57), receiving yards (632) and touchdowns (5) for a second consecutive season. Part of his diminished totals can be traced back to injuries, however. As a freshman, the local product set new program records in receiving yards (1,013), yards per reception (24.7) and all-purpose yards (2,162); while he was troubled by those nagging injuries last fall, he did set another program record, this one for average yards per kick return (28.8). He’s a player to watch, if only for this reason: after returning the opening kickoff of the 2009 season against Alabama for a 96-yard score, Hilton has scored on his first touch in each of the last two years. That’s an incredible stat. Joining him at receiver is senior Greg Ellingson (34 catches for 528 yards) and senior Jason Frierson (30 for 368), while sophomores Wayne Times — appreciate the last name — and Junior Mertile.
The offensive line is led by two sure things, seniors Brad Serini and Cedric Mack, but need a handful of underclassmen to step up in order for this group to round into shape. Serini is beyond just a sure thing: he’s a four-year starter, let alone one of the finer centers in the conference. Mack, the only other senior on the two-deep, will start at right guard. From there, things get a little hazy. Sophomores Dave Istanich and Rupert Bryan will battle for the opportunity to start at right tackle, though both need to take a sizable step forward in their second seasons. It’s the same story at left guard: sophomores Giancarlo Revilla and Chris Cawthon are running one-two on the depth chart entering the summer. Another sophomore, Kenny White, could also earn significant snaps at left guard.
The unfortunate death of Kendall Berry leaves F.I.U. without its most talented running back. In 2009, Berry’s six rushing touchdowns and 4.2 yards per carry average led the team. F.I.U. does return junior Darriet Perry, whose 301 yards rushing was second on the team a year ago, though Perry’s poor yards per carry average — 2.9 yards per tote — is a cause for concern. Other options include sophomore Jeremiah Harden and senior Trenard Turner.
I don’t expect a rapid improvement from the F.I.U. defense in 2010, but with the addition of Collins as defensive coordinator and a number of rising sophomores and juniors growing in the system, the Golden Panthers should be far stouter in conference play than they were a year ago. It all starts up front, as is typically the case. In similar fashion to the offensive line, sophomores litter the defensive line depth chart. End Tourek Williams had a pretty solid debut season, making 28 tackles (5 for loss) and a sack. Four more second-year players will alternate snaps on the interior of the line: Kasey Smith, Andre Pound, Joshua Forney and Andre Mattox, the latter two on the nose. Forney and Mattox are undersized, making it difficult for the pair to remain stout against the run, but there are no other options on the roster.
Despite the overwhelming incompetence of the defense in 2009, the Golden Panthers were lucky to receive solid play from their linebackers. The group will miss Scott Bryan, however, as the departed starter led the team with 101 tackles in his final season. Senior weak side linebacker Toronto Smith, who tied for the team with three and a half sacks a year ago, is the most experienced returning starter. He’ll again man one of the two outside spots, with junior Aaron Davis (58 stops, 7.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) back in the middle. Davis, however, will battle redshirt freshman Winston Fraser and sophomore Larvez Mars to remain in the starting lineup. Kenny Dillard, Bryant’s backup on the strong side in 2009, will ascend to a starting role.
The star of the defense — the T.Y. Hilton on this side of the ball — is senior cornerback Anthony Gaitor, who earned first-team all-Sun Belt honors in 2009 despite battling through nagging injuries nearly throughout the entire season. You wouldn’t know Gaitor was hampered by injuries by looking at his numbers: 45 tackles (4.5 for loss) and a pair of interceptions. He can’t do it alone, however, and F.I.U. must get a better effort from the rest of the secondary. Sadly, there isn’t much else to work with; the secondary will be the Achilles heel of this defense. Perhaps a trio of incoming freshmen — Richard Leonard, Justin Halley and Khambrel McGee — will be forced into early action.
Position battles to watch
Quarterback Paul McCall’s graduation leaves the starting quarterback position up for debate. There are two competitors for the spot: senior Wayne Younger and junior Wesley Carroll. Younger was the backup at quarterback last fall, playing in nine games behind McCall and throwing for 257 yards and 4 interceptions without a touchdown. F.I.U. likes his athleticism, a talent he showed in his game-winning quarterback draw against North Texas. Yet Younger is not quite a polished passer, and last year’s numbers show, and he won’t represent a viable option under center until he can make the opposition respect the pass. I’m more interested in Carroll, the former Mississippi State quarterback who is eligible in 2010 after sitting out last season due to N.C.A.A. transfer rules. Carroll was named to all-freshman team while at M.S.U. in 2007, when he threw for 1,392 yards and 9 scores in leading the Bulldogs to a surprising eight-win finish. He lost his starting role four games into the 2008 season, and opted to transfer F.I.U. following a coaching change in Starkville. You’d have to think that Carroll, a more proven commodity than Younger, will be the starter in 2010. Still, you can’t discount Younger’s experience in Cristobal’s system, seeing he’s entering his fourth year under the F.I.U. coach.
Game(s) to watch
While the first four weeks of the season will provide F.I.U. plenty of chances to test itself, it won’t do much for the team’s won-loss record. Work must be done in Sun Belt play, obviously. The annual Shula Bowl against Florida Atlantic may be for more than just bragging rights, as each will be competing for a finish in the top half of the conference. Wins must be had over Western Kentucky and North Texas if F.I.U. is to improve upon last season’s 3-5 mark in the Sun Belt.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell It won’t be easy for F.I.U. to improve upon last year’s three-win mark, though it is certainly a possibility. Getting a win against one of their first four opponents — all major B.C.S. conference programs — will give a tremendous boost to the Golden Panthers, though it is a long shot that F.I.U. can land one win against Rutgers (at home), Texas A&M, Maryland and Pittsburgh. From there, the schedule does become far easier: F.I.U. opens Sun Belt play against the two worst team in the conference, Western Kentucky and North Texas, and open November with a home date with Louisiana-Monroe. So the schedule will not be impossible to navigate, though six losses are nearly guaranteed. In better news, I always miss on one Sun Belt program each year: in 2008, it was Louisiana-Lafayette; last fall, it was Middle Tennessee. F.I.U. is undoubtedly capable of being a surprise team in the conference in 2010, especially if Carroll or Younger can step in adequately under center and the defense can replace the number of lost starters. I feel safer picking the Golden Panthers to fall here, however — at least until the program can show it is capable of finishing with six wins in a single season. Still, I’m not going to quit on Cristobal: I think he can get it done.
Dream season A win over Rutgers to start the season sets F.I.U. on a record-breaking season, at least by its low standards: 8-4, 7-1 in the Sun Belt.
Nightmare season Cristobal may have the support of the university, but F.I.U. would have to think long and hard about his future with the program following a 2-10 finish.
In case you were wondering
Where do Florida International fans congregate? After having a number of solid options for Washington State, we’re back to only a few choice for a non-B.C.S. conference program. Start with FIUGoldenPanthers.com, the lone independent site, and also take a trip to Panther Rage, where you can find coverage of F.I.U. recruiting.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) I’m bringing it back. As I did last year on the Quad, I’m going to provide you with a team-themed trivia question. The first person to correctly answer the question in the comment field below wins the opportunity — should that person choose to accept — to write a 100-word preview for his or her favorite team when it arrives on the Countdown. Last year, I demanded that the winner write his or her preview in a foreign language. I won’t make that request this year, though one can certainly opt to write 100 words on Minnesota in Latvian, as a loyal reader did last summer.
So here’s the question: F.I.U. has eight losing seasons in eight years as a college football program on any level. Can you name the two other non-B.C.S. conference schools to suffer more than three consecutive losing seasons to open its history as a program?
Who is No. 108? The first chancellor of our next university eventually became President of the United States, though he was never elected.
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