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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Florida International

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A random look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Florida International... What's Changed: The biggest change is the hiring of reform-minded Mario Cristobal and an entirely new staff, but more on him later. Four our purposes, one of the most amazing stats of 2006 was 0-12 FIU's proclivity for making plays in opposing backfields, unmatched by any other defense. The Panthers averaged just over eight tackles for loss and put three players - Antwan Barnes, Alexander Bostic III and the outstandingly-named Keyonvis Bouie - in the top seven for TFLs nationally; Sun Belt offenses typically went backwards more than 30 yards over the course of a game, which had tangible effects for a secondary that finished fourth in the country in pass defense and for a possibly misleading run defense (just 3.6 per carry).

Barnes, Bostic and Bouie: all graduated. The single most productive returning member of the front seven in the Killer Bees' wake is end Reginald Jones, who had one sack. The corners, Lionell Singleton and Robert Mitchell, made a lot of plays but will likely be facing quarterbacks this time with a slightly larger window to get rid of the ball.

What's the Same: Words are impossible to overstate the void in my soul when forced to consider Florida International's 2006 offense.

2006 Record
012 (0-7 Sun Belt, 8th)
Past Five Years
15-41 (3-11 Sun Belt, 2 yrs.)
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (8 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
Cornerback Lionell Singleton was the best player in a pretty decent secondary, all things considered, picking off five passes in the first four games and leading the league in kickoff return average (he took one for a touchdown against Bowling Green, in addition to his two picks) as well as passes broken up. Across the board all-SBC pick and possessor of the "best instincts" in the conference according to Street and Smith’s, on display below (#22) during his ejection/suspension-inducing performance in the FIU-Miami brawl.
Bizarre Tradition
An unfair category for a program still hosting a few redshirts from its first-ever recruiting class in 2002. The closest FIU comes to football tradition is banal: the "Shula Bowl" with equally nebulous Florida Atlantic, being an underdog (the Panthers are 1-3 straight up as favorites), hypothetical mascot "Roary the Panther" or possibly the rather understaffed "Golden Stars," but for now, at least, it’s best known for last year’s throwdown against Miami.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Under the heading "We Are FIU" on the school’s football homepage, an option exists to navigate to something called "Panther Rage." What is Panther Rage? I don’t know, but it must be good – nay, great – because it’s forbidden.

Also: the roster lists three players from a hometown outside the state of Florida, and none from outside the continental United States, thus fulfilling the ideal Dobbs-Buchanan definition of "international."

2006 FIU Scoring
Game Offense Total
@ Mid. Tenn. 6 6
@ USF 7 20
B. Green 21 28
@ Maryland 10 10
Ark. State 6 6
at N. Texas* 10 22
@ Miami 0 0
@ Alabama 3 3
UL-Monroe 0 0
UL-Lafytt. 7 7
vs. Fla. Atl. 0 0
Troy 6 13
Average 6.3 9.6
* - FIU scored six points on a pair of field goals during seven-overtime marathon

Imagine the cycle of hope, frustration, despair and finally resigned, sad acceptance of inadequacy that must follow for an offense that failed week after week, in every game but one - the narrow home loss to Bowling Green - to produce better than a single touchdown, if it was fortunate enough to manage that; beginning with the Oct. 14 defeat at Miami and the subsequent suspensions, the Panthers went more than a month before finally finding the end zone against UL-Lafayette on Nov. 18, the fourth of a five-game stretch in which FIU scored 0, 3, 0, 7 and 0 points. The defense/special teams scoring was on pace with the offense over the second half of the season - one touchdown apiece in the last six games - until a largely meaningless pass from Josh Padrick to Chandler Williams with four minutes remaining in the finale gave the Big O an insurmountable lead.

Padrick and Williams qualify as the most notable names each of the last two seasons, but their graduation should have been to little fanfare - Padrick threw 14 interceptions last year to just five touchdowns; Williams' 67th and final catch was his only score - with the return of leading rusher and intrepid defender of valor A'mod Ned, a couple notable receivers who logged starts as freshman and all five linemen. A new, wholly inexperienced quarterback here cannot prevent some progress back towards the mean, which before last year's excursion into the single digits was in the neighborhood of 23 points per game; given some early signs of something on a slightly higher plane than "hopeless" last year before Ned was injured against Arkansas State, the scoring output of a now-veteran unit could conceivably double.

One more note about Ned: his official NCAA statsheet indicates he did not play at all on Oct. 7 against North Texas, nor Oct. 28 at Alabama, but did he participate in the Oct. 14 visit to the Orange Bowl in between? Yes, according to the NCAA, though the fact that he did not touch the ball and spent the game in jeans and on crutches argues otherwise. Unless, of course, the Association is counting... "participation."

How to Kick Your Way to the Curb: FIU almost broke even (5-6) in 2005 and, as noted by Phil Steele, couldn't have had cut it any closer to a 5-1 start last year thanks to the defense: missed PATs were the margin in one-point losses at both Middle Tennessee State and South Florida, a last-second comeback bid against Maryland ended with an interception at the UMD nine-yard line, North Texas needed a record-breaking seven overtimes to put the Panthers away and Bowling Green hung on in the closing minutes to win a back-and-forth game by five. Five losses, 14 points. The loss at Miami the week after the UNT marathon and especially the suspensions coming out of that game doomed any possible efforts to salvage optimism.

The kicking game was a killer: Chris Patullo missed the extra points and another field goal that cost FIU its first two games, and Dustin Rivest missed four field goals in overtime alone against North Texas (his UNT counterpart missed three before hitting the game winner). Chris Cook had two punts blocked during the suspension games and FIU wound up with the worst net average (27.2) in the country.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: Cristobal is new and young and therefore inherently enthusiastic about taking on one of the really ominous re-building projects in college sports after conditions went very, very far south in every possible way on poor Don Strock. But where it currently reads "TBA" next to a basic piece of information like "Stadium," at least the Panthers figure to have something in place by 2008 better than their current digs, permanent seating seven thousand. The school broke ground last month on an expanded version that will open next fall with 18,000 seats and all the faddish luxury box-type amenities, then expand further to 45,000 by 2011. If that many people are in line to pay to see an FIU game in 2011, Cristobal will be too busy swimming in his money vault at a down-on-its-luck ACC also-ran to notice.

They'll be in the Orange Bowl in the meantime. Security has been alerted.

Florida International on YouTube: Obviously, FIU has its PR issues - besides fielding the nation's only winless team, its lowest-scoring offense and its greatest number of players suspended in a bench-clearing melee with a crosstown rival, the Panthers were also hit with a staggering nine scholarship suspensions (and another two in basketball) for failing to meet the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate - but all in all, it's a beautiful life in South Florida! Focus on the positive with the girls of the Miss FIU pageant:

See Also: Antwan Barnes does the ice cream and cake ... A day in the life of an FIU student, a lot like a day in the life of students everywhere these days ... Optimism on the march: next year's video will include actual video ... And dammit, this our country! You gotta stand and fight!

Conventional Wisdom: Athlon projects FIU as the worst team in the country again, admitting "the Golden Panthers shouldn't go 0-12 again," but still projecting every game on the schedule as a loss - no toss-ups, all defeats. Ditto, with less specification, by The Sporting News, which also rather lazily sees another 0-12, 119th-ranked autumn of woe ahead. At least Phil Steele and Street and Smith's are giving FIU a little much-needed tenderness: both have the Panthers seventh in the Sun Belt, ahead of North Texas.

Cristobal knows not what peril and death lay ahead on his pioneering Caribbean expedition.
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Best-Case: The first four games are brutal, hope-we-stay-healthy beatdowns in waiting at Penn State, Miami and Kansas and at home against prospect-hunting Maryland, with another game at Arkansas right before Halloween, which means FIU would have to upset one of those teams (all winners last year, to various degrees) or run the table in the Sun Belt to make a legitimate case for a bowl game. "Best case" is not wild optimism. The Panthers might pull that upset - they were very close at Maryland last year, so what the hell, chalk up the Terps - but a winning record in-conference is too much of a leap. The peak is probably 4-8.

Worst-Case: See above. The Panthers won't be favored to win until November at the absolute earliest, if they're ever a favorite at all. The worst is the worst: 0-12 is the easiest answer to give about this team.

Non-Binding Forecast: Early poundings away from home, wherever that is for now, facilitate a nice three-game home stand to close the season against UL-Lafayette, Florida Atlantic and North Texas. The Panthers could improve enough to win one of those after taking out a UL-Monroe or Arkansas State earlier in the year and wind up 2-10; 3-9 if the quarterback isn't completely terrible. Baby steps.

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Previous Assessments, Reasonable and Absurd...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple
June 1: Houston June 12: Wyoming June 25: Nebraska