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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 70: Florida International

It was a season of firsts. First non-losing season. First winning season. First year scoring more than 300 points. First year scoring more points than the opposition while on the F.B.S. level. First year with more than three wins in conference play. First winning record during conference play. First conference championship. First bowl game. First bowl win. First year worth writing home about. First, first, first, first. Next up: first year with sizable expectations. As Florida International will soon discover, it’s one thing to do it once; it’s another thing to do it again.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Miami

Nickname
Golden Panthers

Returning starters
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 109

2010 record
(7-6, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 67

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    North Texas
  • Sept. 10
    at Louisville
  • Sept. 17
    U.C.F.
  • Sept. 24
    U.L.-Lafayette
  • Oct. 1
    Duke
  • Oct. 9
    at Akron
  • Oct. 18
    at Arkansas St.
  • Oct. 25
    Troy
  • Nov. 5
    at W.K.U.
  • Nov. 12
    F.A.U.
  • Nov. 19
    at La.-Monroe
  • Nov. 26
    at M.T.S.U.

Last year’s prediction

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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Raise your hand if you saw this coming. Some did, believe it or not, and the reasons behind their faith are easy to see in hindsight. For starters, the youth that defined this program’s early struggles under Mario Cristobal turned into experience – this, first and foremost, was the factor behind Florida International’s explosive jump to the top of the Sun Belt. Speaking of explosive: the growth of the offense was the second factor behind this team’s jump. The Golden Panthers set a new school record with 374 points, with the 28.8-point per game average good for third in the Sun Belt. Then there was this defense. Oh, this defense. Behind a new coordinator, F.I.U. went from last place to first in the Sun Belt in total defense, eighth in pass defense to third, eighth against the run to fourth and seventh in scoring to second, cutting more than a touchdown per game off its total. That’s a serious climb. The offense got the headlines, but the defense was the story.

High point A 52-35 win over Troy. On the road, no less. Move over, Trojans: the conference belonged to Florida International. The win gave the Panthers the head-to-tiebreaker it needed to take home the Sun Belt, which came in handy when F.I.U. dropped the season finale to Middle Tennessee State.

Low point More non-conference losses. It’s hard to take F.I.U. too seriously when it makes hay in a weak Sun Belt but can’t quite match up with the B.C.S. conference foes in September. The Panthers have come close over the last three years, however. Last fall saw F.I.U. play Rutgers and Texas A&M tight, losing by five and seven points, respectively.

Tidbit What’s the most selective university in Florida? Well, the preview does give it away. But it is surprising, is it not, to think that Florida International is more selective than Florida and Miami (Fla.), two pretty solid institutions with a far more national draw than F.I.U., which was only founded in 1965. From 2005 to 2008, F.I.U.’s admission rate dropped from 63 percent – which is high – to only 33 percent. The freshman class of 2008 admitted 4,482 of the 13,528 students who applied. The admission rate rose to just below 35 percent for the freshman class in 2010, but that’s still a relatively low number. Florida was second in the state for the fall of 2010, accepting roughly 42 percent of students who applied; Miami was fourth at 44.4 percent; and Florida State 14th, taking 61 percent. The easiest school in Florida to attend? Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University: the Daytona-based institution accepted 80.6 percent of its applicants.

Tidbit (acronym edition) Other things the acronym F.I.U. might stand for, other than Florida International University: Financial Intelligence Unit, or bits of information used to analyze business transactions; Fingerprint Identification Unit, which is part of the larger crime scene investigative group as a whole; Foundation for International Understanding, a student-based group interested in examining global topics; and Fire Isiah University, an intrepid group of F.I.U. basketball fans dedicated to ridding their university of the scourge of the basketball universe.

Former players in the N.F.L.

3 LB Antwan Barnes (San Diego), CB Anthony Gaitor (Tampa Bay), WR Chandler Williams (Kansas City).

Arbitrary top five list

Worst general managers of the last 20 years
1. Isiah Thomas, New York Knicks.
2. Matt Millen, Detroit Lions.
3. Elgin Baylor, Los Angeles Clippers.
4. Randy Smith, Detroit Tigers.
5. Rejean Houle, Montreal Canadiens.

Coaching

Mario Cristobal (Miami ’93), 16-33 after four seasons with the Golden Panthers. Cristobal and F.I.U. burst onto the national stage a year ago, taking home the Sun Belt in the program’s first winning season of its existence. The dirty work has all been done by Cristobal, who has received far too little national recognition for the work he’s done rebuilding one of the nation’s youngest — and certainly its weakest — programs since taking over four years ago. He’s done so by taking his time, identifying and developing talent in his talent-rich home state, which sounds easy in hindsight but was an unbelievable tough task for Cristobal to overcome. He has very 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. It’s hard to imagine, but Cristobal has lifted F.I.U. from the bottom of the nation to the top of the Sun Belt. Start paying attention to the name: Cristobal looks like he’s going places.

Players to watch

The offense brings back coordinator Scott Satterfield, whose first year with the Panthers couldn’t have gone much better. He’s not long for F.I.U. if his offense continues to play like it did in 2010: the Panthers were substantially improved across the board, rushing and passing, and enough pieces return in 2011 to expect even further improvement. And that’s a pretty frightening thought for the rest of the Sun Belt, which tried its best to hang with F.I.U. last fall but failed more often than not.

I was really disappointed in T.Y. Hilton. Really disappointed: after scoring on his first touch of the year in 2008 and 2009, Hilton couldn’t duplicate that feat against Rutgers in the season opener last fall. Man, what a disappointment. I suppose Hilton made up for that massive failure – sarcasm – by being, once again, the most dynamic player in the Sun Belt. He made 59 grabs for 848 yards and 5 touchdowns, leading or tying for the team lead in each category. He rushed for 282 yards and 4 scores on a team-best 9.2 yards per carry. He averaged 28.7 yards per kick return, good for 14th nationally, and was one of only 11 players in the F.B.S. to return at least two kickoffs for scores. No other player in the Sun Belt strikes fear into the opposition quite like Hilton, the finest player in F.I.U. history and, quite simply, one of the most electric players in the country. He’s worth the price of admission.

It’s all about Hilton at receiver, but the Panthers have some complimentary options at the position. One is junior Wayne Times (28 catches for 341 yards), though I worry about F.I.U.’s lack of size at the top two receiver spots. The concern over size doesn’t extend to the end of the depth chart: the Panthers have plenty of tall, lanky targets, such as sophomores Willis Wright and Glen Coleman, not to mention a pair of incoming freshmen who stand around 6’4, give or take.

F.I.U. turned the page on 2009, went to work looking ahead to 2010 and, lo and behold, became one of the most impressive running teams in the country. Give most of the credit to the offensive line, which really rounded into form, but also credit Cristobal and his staff for stockpiling a number of talented options at running back. It’s a four-man group, one headlined by senior Darriet Perry, a breakout start a year ago. He was a second-team all-conference pick, thanks to his 839 yards and Sun Belt-best 16 scores, with most of that damage coming from October on.

Perry shares carries with junior Darian Mallary, who finished second on the team with 679 yards on the ground, as well as former Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden (327 yards) and sophomore Kedrick Rhodes (293 yards). It’s a quartet that compliments each other well: Perry and Harden are bigger backs while Mallary and Rhodes provide a nice change of pace. What a difference one year made for the Panthers on the ground. This team should be equally potent in 2011.

Wesley Carroll’s biggest issue continues to be turnovers: he’s struggled protecting the football since late in his freshman season at Mississippi State, though he did begin his career with an N.C.A.A.-freshman record 137 consecutive attempts without an interception. He threw 14 a year ago, tossing five during non-conference play and six over a three-week span to open the heart of Sun Belt action. With an offensive line pretty much in place, a loaded backfield and weapons at receiver, Carroll’s play is the most important factor facing this offense as head into 2011. Can he button up his play, cutting down on the interceptions while steadying the F.I.U. passing attack? That’s the biggest question the offense must address prior to September.

Like Satterfield, first-year coordinator Geoff Collins had an immense impact on the defensive side of the ball. Unlike Satterfield, Collins quickly parlayed this success into a step up the coaching ladder, continuing his rapid climb up the coaching ranks by replacing Manny Diaz at Mississippi State. Collins will be missed, but the Panthers were able to land an experienced replacement in former Connecticut coordinator Todd Orlando. Unfortunately, it is important to note that this is the program’s third coordinator in as many years.

Orlando’s most vital task will be maintaining F.I.U.’s effective pass rush, which was another area where the Golden Panthers took a monumental step forward in 2010. As we know, a good pass rush has a trickle-down effect throughout a defense: it overshadows any questions in the secondary, for starters. Orlando has much of last year’s defense to work with, but he does need to replace some key figures in the front seven.

One is end Jarvis Wilson, who led F.I.U. in tackles for loss (15) and sacks (9.5) as a senior. The Golden Panthers will count on second-team all-conference pick Tourek Williams (46 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks) to recoup some of that lost production. Williams might lack the size most coaches look for at end but he’s a weapon on passing downs – and that’s just what F.I.U. needs him to be. Wilson’s departure still leaves a hole, one F.I.U. hopes can be filled with senior James Jones and sophomore Gregory Hickman; the latter has enough size to move inside on passing downs. The interior of the line seems set: all-conference pick Joshua Forney is back at tackle, as are contributors like Kasey Smith and Isame Faciane. Hickman and Faciane were terrific in April’s spring game.

Toronto Smith held together this defense at middle linebacker, so losing him hurts the linebacker corps as much as Wilson’s departure impacts the defensive line. JUCO transfer Jordan Hunt, who arrived on campus in January, is the overwhelming favorite to supplant Smith in the middle. He’ll start alongside all-Sun Belt pick Winston Frazier (72 tackles, 9 for loss). The third linebacker in this defense will play a hybrid role, so having a defender big enough to take on blockers but quick enough to cover potential receivers is a must. Junior Markeith Russell seems to have that sort of ability, as does talented sophomore Larvez Mars. If there’s a future star on this defense, it’s probably Mars.

If there’s a current star on this defense, it’s junior strong safety Jonathan Cyprien. Scratch that: Cyprien’s already a star, at least on the Sun Belt level, after leading the way with 113 tackles (3 for loss) and an interception a year ago. That came on the heels of a strong rookie campaign, indicating that Cyprien might just be starting to touch on his potential. He’s a great piece, an all-conference caliber performer, but the secondary lacks the same sort of talent and depth seen along the front seven. But the pass rush put forth by the line and linebackers will, once again, help out the pass defense.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Even when F.I.U. was struggling from 2008-9 under Cristobal, it was clear that the Golden Panthers had the offensive skill players to score points. The biggest issue – along with a lack of consistency from top to bottom – was the offensive line, where F.I.U. had issues finding five starters and capable depth. Problem solved, it seems. At least it was in 2010, as the Panthers did a fine job protecting the quarterback and excelled in the running game, as noted above. Now that a pair of starters must be replaced, F.I.U. hopes to maintain its current stretch of solid line play while inserting a few new faces into the mix. Line coach Alex Mirabal has stressed maintaining the status quo, which means the three returning starters won’t be moved: all-Sun Belt pick Caylin Hauptmann will remain at left tackle, Curtis Bryant at right guard and Rupert Bryan at right tackle. It’s a simple idea, keeping ensconced starters in their comfort zone, but you’d be surprised how many teams alter with a set-in-stone group of starters in an effort to rebuild a line hampered by losses to graduation. Not the Panthers: wise move by Mirabal and Cristobal. So two spots are open, at left guard and center, and F.I.U. has options. One is former JUCO transfer Kevin Van Kirk, who took a redshirt last fall. I would think he has the edge over junior David Istanich at left guard, though Istanich does bring some starting experience into 2011. The biggest hole is at center, where F.I.U. must replace four-year starter Brad Serini. Sophomores Giancarlo Revilla and Ceedrick Davis are the options here; both played a year ago, with Revilla making a pair of starts during non-conference play.

Game(s) to watch

Troy. Florida International took home the crown a year ago, but I still think the Sun Belt goes through the Trojans. This year’s game is due to be a mid-week affair, leading me to believe it’ll be picked up nationally – so it’s a big one for two reasons for the Golden Panthers. Road games with Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee are right behind Troy in terms of Sun Belt importance. Don’t sleep on games with Louisville and yes, even Duke: F.I.U. really needs to knock off a B.C.S. conference opponent.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I like Troy to take back the Sun Belt crown, though that’s far from an indictment of Florida International’s chances heading into 2011. This year’s team should be even better, thanks to a roster that remains largely intact on both sides of the ball. There is plenty of talent throughout the offense: Hilton is a star and the headliner on offense, but there’s also depth and experience at running back and even along the offensive line, though the interior of the line must be retooled. The biggest question on offense is at quarterback, and even Carroll’s not too large a concern: he just needs to do a better job protecting the football, and there’s reason to believe he will as a senior. More than anything, the defense just needs to continue to get pressure on the quarterback. If the Golden Panthers can do that – and it’s not as easy as it sounds – it will provide an enormous boost to a secondary that needs some help, though Cyprien is one of the Sun Belt’s best defenders. So why do I have Troy ahead of F.I.U.? Just call it a hunch: I really can’t say why other than to say that I think the Trojans will be rejuvenated by their latest challenger, having vanquished all other Sun Belt comers over the last half-decade. Now, the biggest question facing F.I.U. in 2011: Can the Panthers live up to the hype? It’s one thing to come in under the radar and another to succeed when everyone thinks you will, as F.I.U. will soon discover. The rest of the Sun Belt will be gunning for the Golden Panthers, who must take on an opponents best shot and return the favor. They’re good enough to do so. I’m thinking another win on last year’s mark, leaving F.I.U. at 7-5 in the regular season, just behind Troy on the Sun Belt ladder.

Dream season More progression: 10-2, 8-0 in the Sun Belt. Outside a national ranking, but close enough to put F.I.U. fully on the national radar.

Nightmare season F.I.U. doesn’t just give back the Sun Belt; the Golden Panthers cough it back up, returning to the conference’s bottom half in a 3-9 season, complete with a 3-5 mark in Sun Belt action.

In case you were wondering

Where do Florida International fans congregate? 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. A new addition to the list: The Prowl is the university’s official sports blog.

Word Count

Through 51 teams 146,546.

Up Next

Who is No. 69? Three of the last four coaches at tomorrow’s university left town with a winning record of 37.5 percent or less. One went directly to the N.F.L., where he’s spent the last 14 years with three different teams.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    The Maryland Terrapins are next. Joe Krivak, Mark Duffner, and Ron Vanderlinden each had winning percentages lower than 37% and Mark Duffner immediately went to the NFL and has been with the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, and Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Ralph Friedgen is the lone winner of the group, and their new coach Randy Edsall (from Uconn last season) hasn’t coached a game yet, so he’s not counted in the group of 3 out of 4.

  2. Chuck says:

    Do you guys live in Miami? Very well written and informative. Excellent Article. I’m from maryland but I saw them play live and FIU is on track to be the next Florida Juggernaut. I

  3. John Irons says:

    I think you got it Eksynyt.

  4. John Irons says:

    Paul, a think a nod needs to go to FIU’s fans and stadium. Miami teams (except the Dolphins) are notorious for not drawing good crowds unless it’s a big game – even the almighty Hurricanes have their attendance issues. Even though FIU is a suburban stadium the crowds seemingly are bigger and louder every time I go back.

    After all the renovations FIU stadium is a actually a fine place to watch a game. With the track gone there isn’t a bad seat in the house in terms of field proximity, even the bench seats have backs, the new jumbotron and lights really make the place seem new.

    Affordable college night football in South Florida’s September to December weather, all that without having to drive just about a county away? Yes please.

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