The Year in Review: F.I.U. (8-5, 5-3)
By Paul Myerberg // Jan 4, 2012
To understand where Florida International stood upon Mario Cristobal’s arrival in 2007, it’s probably useful to read the following paragraph from the great Bruce Feldman, way back when he was doing his thing at ESPN, not CBS:
When Cristobal got the job, F.I.U. was winless… The program was in complete disarray when he arrived. I have been down to visit F.I.U. before Cristobal arrived and after. There was no weight room, no meeting rooms, no film setup. It was unlike any Division I program I’d ever seen…. Many of the players had to work out on a Bowflex machine in some makeshift room. Players often had to sit on the floor of coaches’ offices for position meetings.
It’s through the prism of then-and-now, from nothing to something, that we need to judge Florida International’s 2011 season. Disappointing today? The Golden Panthers, the presumptive Sun Belt favorites, lost to Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State and Western Kentucky en route to a fourth-place finish in the final conference standings. Disappointing when compared to where this program was in 2007? F.I.U. has gone from Bowflex to bowl play. Not disappointing: amazing.
Let’s ignore the big picture — but only until later in this post. In 2011, the Panthers failed to achieve their primary goal, winning the Sun Belt, and was leapfrogged by three former also-rans. Arkansas State burst onto the conference scene behind its one-year coaching wonder. The Hilltoppers slowly but surely worked their way into the mix — much like F.I.U., actually.
Louisiana-Lafayette, as noted earlier today, hit a home run with its own coaching hire. There are lessons to be learned here for the Panthers: most notably, F.I.U. now knows that there’s no rolling out of bed and taking home conference hardware, even in the Sun Belt.
Hard work and dedication can help build a weight room, a meeting room, a film room and a program. Having laser-sharp focus — with one eye on the prize — lifted the Panthers from the bottom of the Sun Belt to the top. But getting there is only half the battle; staying on top is the goal, and the Panthers’ stay atop the Sun Belt lasted a single season.
But forget the doom and gloom. Of the top four teams in this year’s Sun Belt, F.I.U. is the most likely to experience prolonged success. The Red Wolves may have hired a good one in Gus Malzahn, but it’ll be tough for anyone to maintain Hugh Freeze’s 2011 success. U.L.L. may soon be in the same boat with Mark Hudspeth. Western Kentucky was great in 2011, but let’s wait for the Hilltoppers to follow that up with a strong 2012 before fully jumping on board.
The Panthers will need to replace a few key contributors on offense — quarterback, receiver, running back — but will return the entirety of their defense. Cristobal continues to bring in talented local athletes on the recruiting trail. This year may have been a disappointment in the little picture, but nothing points towards F.I.U. being on the decline. Let’s go back to the big picture: Cristobal has built a potential Sun Belt power.
Season grade: B+ I can’t ignore the wide camera view. The Panthers were an absolute disgrace only two years ago. That makes calling an eight-win season a disappointment at least a little ridiculous, right? To be honest, the only issue I have is the idea that in this specific season, F.I.U. was bypassed by three conference foes — each of which came out of relative obscurity. That’s not a good sign for this particular season, but I doubt that it’s a trend. The Panthers seem far more likely to hold up as bowl participants that their three conference foes.
High point A strong September in non-conference play. Before capping the month with a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, F.I.U. rolled past North Texas and beat Louisville and U.C.F. by a touchdown apiece. It was Sept. 17, the Panthers were 3-0, and folks were paying attention.
Low point Two of the three Sun Belt losses came by a combined by a combined six points: 36-31 to U.L.L. and 10-9 to the pesky Hilltoppers. A non-conference loss to Duke came by four points, 31-27. Arkansas State blew the Panthers’ doors off in the fourth quarter of its 34-16 win, yes. But it’s not a stretch to say that F.I.U. could have won at least one additional game in the regular season.
Offensive M.V.P. It’s T.Y. Hilton. Come on. He’s the best player in program history. His highlight-reel moments lifted the Panthers into bowl play in 2010 and propelled this team through its red-hot start to September. Did he trail off a bit down the stretch? Yeah, but that is due at least in part to his heavy workload: as a receiver, return man and runner, Hilton did it all. He’ll be very difficult to replace.
Defensive M.V.P. Winston Fraser had more tackles, but Jordan Hunt made more plays. Hunt finished second on the team in tackles to Fraser, 85 to 108, but also finished second on the team in tackles for loss and sacks. He was a box score’s dream. Fraser played well, as did Jonathan Cyprien and Tourek Williams, but Hunt’s ability to disrupt plays in the backfield made him invaluable. He gets bonus points for stepping up big in the bowl loss to Marshall.
Stock watch The only thing that can stop F.I.U. is F.I.U., or the program’s inability to locate a successor capable of replacing some of Hilton’s game-breaking ability. Has the program moved beyond the point where it could be devastated by the loss of one single player? I think it has. Replacing Hilton will take the work of two players, if not three: one as a receiver, one on special teams and one as a do-everything runner, if needed. But you have faith in Cristobal’s ability to continue the program’s current run in the upper crust of the Sun Belt. As of today, there’s absolutely no reason to think that F.I.U. won’t continue to challenge for eight wins in 2012.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Arkansas State, Florida International, Jordan Hunt, Louisiana-Lafayette, Mario Cristobal, Sun Belt, T.Y. Hilton, Western Kentucky
Leave a Comment