The Orlando Sentinel's college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 125 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No. 116: FIU
Coach: Ron Turner (0-0, 1st season; 42-61 overall)
2012 record: 3-9 (2-6 in Sun Belt Conference, eighth in Sun Belt)
Look back: The Panthers stumbled out of the gate last season and could never recover, losing eight of their first nine games. It was a precipitous fall from consecutive bowl seasons in 2010 and 2011. FIU opened the 2012 season with a loss at Duke and then bounced back with a 41-38 win over Akron. However, the Panthers would lose their next six games, including home losses to Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky, giving up more than 32 points in seven of 12 games. The Panthers racked up six losses by eight points or less. FIU athletic director Pete Garcia ultimately decided to fire coach Mario Cristobal, a surprising move after Cristobal helped build the program and led it to its first conference title. Cristobal went 1-1 in bowl games at FIU.
Offensive starters returning: 3
Offensive starters lost: 8
Defensive starters returning: 3
Defensive starters lost: 8
Key losses: S Jonathan Cyprien, CB Jose Cheeseborough, OL Caylin Hauptmann, OL Rupert Bryan, LB Winston Fraser, LB Jordan Hunt, DE Tourek Williams
Top returnees: QB Jake Medlock, RB Kedrick Rhodes, WR Willis Wright, DE Greg Hickman, CB Sam Miller, S Justin Halley, CB/RS Richard Leonard
Strengths: The Panthers return the bulk of their production on offense. Jake Medlock has 11 starts at quarterback and Kedrick Rhodes has 20 starts at running back. Medlock missed three games due to injury in 2012, but he still put up one of the program’s best passing seasons, completing 152 of 263 passes for 2,127 yards and 13 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Rhodes, meanwhile, is the school record-holder for career rushing attempts (441) and is 39 yards shy of the school career mark for rushing yards with 2,156. Willis Wright led the team with 633 receiving yards in 2012 on just 25 receptions, with five touchdowns.
Weaknesses: FIU must find answers on defense. The Golden Panthers are looking to replace the bulk of a defensive unit that was supposed to be one of their strengths last season, but instead the group gave up 31.7 points and 402.9 yards per game. FIU must replace the entire starting linebacking corps, key starters in the secondary, their top pass rusher and two defensive tackles. In addition, only three returning offensive lineman have significant playing experience and FIU will be looking for starters at both tackle spots and center. FIU must also replace two longtime starters at kicker and punter on special teams.
Outlook: It will be a year of transition for FIU. The Golden Panthers will be replacing 16 starters while also learning a new system under a new coaching staff in a new conference. The odds for a quick turnaround are against them. Pieces are in place for a decent offensive season, but many question marks remain, most notably on the offensive line and throughout the defense. A tough nonconference and home schedule adds to the challenge.
Aug. 31 at Maryland
Sept. 7 UCF
Sept. 14 Bethune-Cookman
Sept. 21 at Louisville
Oct. 5 at Southern Miss
Oct. 12 UAB
Oct. 26 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 2 East Carolina
Nov. 9 at Middle Tennessee
Nov. 16 at UTEP
Nov. 23 Marshall
Nov. 29 at FAU