FIU football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Golden Panthers, best players and season prediction.
Florida International is eyeing the next step in its development as a football program.
The Panthers have improved in each of the last two seasons under head coach Ron Turner, winning four games in 2014 and five a year ago. Maintaining a similar trajectory this fall will result in the program’s first bowl berth since 2011. And that’s going to be a necessary achievement to return to the days when former coach Mario Cristobal had FIU surging.
One brick at a time, Turner is attempting to lay a foundation in Miami. And the offense, led by the quartet of QB Alex McGough, RB Alex Gardner, WR Thomas Owens and TE Jonnu Smith, loses no one from 2015. If the Panthers can get better blocking up front and a general improvement in efficiency and execution in all phases, this could truly be one of the league’s toughest attacks to defend. Never in its brief history has FIU averaged 30 points in a season, but that level of production might be necessary to compensate for the other side of the ball.
It’s on defense where Florida International will sink or swim this season, with the emphasis likely on sinking. To reach the coveted .500 mark, last accomplished by Cristobal’s staff five years ago, the team must find a way to bolster a defense that collapsed down the stretch and must replace all but one of last season’s five All-Conference USA standouts.
Somehow fixing the defense is going to be a tall order for recently-hired coordinator Ron Cooper and his assistants, but it’s what will probably determine whether or not the Panthers reach their goals in 2016.
Florida International has raised the bar the past two years, officially getting beyond low-point of the one-win 2013 campaign. But there’ll be no resting on laurels for a program buried deep in the shadows of the Dolphins and the Canes in Miami. The time has arrived for the Panthers to seize their scant whiff of momentum by opening up the offense and positioning McGough to become the face of the program.
What You Need to Know About the FIU Offense
After improving in each of the last two seasons, the Panther offense is hoping to hit the tarmac and take off this season. The team’s 25.5 points per game in 2015 was its highest since 2010, and nearly triple the output from just two years earlier.
With the return of an emerging quarterback, Alex McGough, the leading rusher, Alex Gardner, the top receiver, Thomas Owens, and a next-level tight end, Jonnu Smith, the staff is justifiably bullish again in 2016.
The lone caveat? An offensive line that returns All-Conference USA C Michael Montero and a whole bunch of question marks. Florida International had trouble protecting the pocket and creating daylight for Gardner and backup Anthony Jones a season ago.
And if the blockers continue to struggle at the point of attack, it’s going to impede the potential of unit with the skill position personnel to rank among the league’s most prolific.
Biggest Key To The FIU Offense
McGough to take the next big step. QB Alex McGough developed into one of Conference USA’s top young hurlers last year under the watchful eye of head coach Ron Turner. Similar growth is expected in 2016, now that the Tampa native is entering his junior season. In many ways, it’ll be a perfect storm for McGough who’s a year older, surrounded by a solid supporting cast and needing to compensate for a defense destined for a slump.
What You Need to Know About the FIU Defense
The Panthers have been surprisingly feisty on defense the past two seasons, transforming raw athletes into productive playmakers. Coordinators Josh Conklin and now Matt House have done good jobs of coaching up marginal players.
But can FIU avoid a precipitous drop-off this fall now that four of House’s best defenders have exhausted their eligibility?
Ball-hawking CB Richard Leonard and linemen Michael Wakefield, Denzell Perine and Lars Koht will be very difficult for this unit to replace. In fact, the combination of a quieter pass rush and a pair of first-time starting cornerbacks is certain to equal even bigger headaches for the pass defense.
The staff is being forced to lean with even more weight on a small and athletic group of linebackers. Anthony Wint is already an all-star, and Treyvon Williams and Davison Collimon are eager to get back on the field after missing most of 2015 to injuries.
Biggest Key To The FIU Defense
Who’s got next? The Panthers have lost a ton of leadership and playmakers to graduation. Three all-star defensive linemen have exhausted their eligibility, as well as the team’s two best defensive backs. The coaching staff will spend the balance of the offseason searching for viable replacement that can fill the void and take advantage of an opportunity for more reps. The linebackers are set, but the coordinator, Ron Cooper, has put out an APB for pass rushers and pass defenders.
FIU Will Be Far Better If …
it becomes a more competent road team. Over the past four seasons, the Panthers have been anything but golden outside of Miami, going 5-18 away from home since 2012. And last season, a dismal 1-6 road record offset a solid 4-1 mark at home. Florida International needs to mature as a program, and that maturity must begin with a higher degree of consistency when the team is wearing white jerseys.
Best FIU Offensive Player
Junior RB Alex Gardner. Over the past couple of seasons, Gardner has emerged as the Panthers’ most dependable and versatile offensive weapon. In 2015, he led the team in rushing and receiving, despite tepid support from a middling offensive line. Gardner is going to make his own yards, and he’ll again serve as a valuable safety valve for Alex McGough when the receivers and tight ends are blanketed.
Best FIU Defensive Player
Junior LB Anthony Wint. There’s plenty with which to be concerned on defense this season. Wint is one of the rare exceptions, the leader of a linebacker corps that’s fast, ferocious and experienced. The junior, who led the Panthers in tackles a season ago, covers a lot of ground, which is a good thing considering the state of the rebuilt defensive line. Wint is one of just three returning all-leaguers, so his role this season will be even bigger than before.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Senior CB Deonte Wilson. Wilson has never quite gained traction during his career, starting just four games since arriving in 2012. But now he’s the veteran of the cornerbacks, which is a big deal for a team looking to replace Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon. Wilson has played some safety, so he’s more physical than the garden variety corner, but his coverage skills remain a question mark entering 2016.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Panthers flip a couple of last year’s road losses to qualify for their third-ever bowl invitation. Florida International has been steadily improving under Ron Turner, going from a single win in 2013 to five a year ago. Both the offense and the defense made strides over that time, but now the squad must take the next step by reaching the .500 mark. And with a schedule featuring seven home games and only one truly rough road test, at Western Kentucky, FIU is positioned to bowl in December.
Sept. 17 at Massachusetts. If the Panthers want to chart a new course away from home, they might be able to do so in Week 3 in Amherst. The Minutemen are facing wholesale changes on offense, which could give a little break to the revamped Florida International D. Plus, with opening games versus teams from the Big Ten, Indiana and Maryland, FIU might need to knock off UMass to avert an 0-3 start.
2015 Fun FIU Stats
– Rushing first downs: FIU 85 – Opponents 142
– Touchdown passes: FIU 22 – Opponents 17
– Sacks: FIU 22 – Opponents 27