Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
Just imagine what FIU might become when it has its act together! Just think of what might happen when recruiting kicks in!
That’s what I kept reminding myself as I was putting together info for the Panthers’ 2019 preview.
In two years under Butch Davis, FIU has overachieved quite a bit, perhaps in an unsustainable way. In terms of post-game win expectancies (in which I take a team’s performance in a given game and say, “With these key stats, you could have expected to win this game X percent of the time”), the Panthers should have won 13.8 games in 2017-18 (6.4 in 2017, 7.4 in 2018). Instead, they won 17.
In 2018, FIU went 9-4, winning statistical tossups against Old Dominion and Toledo and stealing a game they had no business stealing against MTSU — a 24-21 victory in which they had a vastly inferior success rate (42 percent to 31 percent) and got badly beaten in the field position battle. They still fell a game short of MTSU in the C-USA East race but bolstered the turnaround that had begun the moment Davis set foot on FIU’s campus, back in the Miami area where he had previously experienced professional highs.
Davis’ career has been one at which to marvel. A former Arkansas defensive end, he spent most of the 1970s coaching high school ball in Arkansas and Oklahoma but ended up on Jimmy Johnson’s staff at Oklahoma State (1979-83), then Miami (1984-88). He followed Johnson to the Dallas Cowboys (defensive line coach for four years, defensive coordinator for two) before taking on the job of rebuilding a sanctions-laden Miami program in 1995.
An Oklahoma boy by birth, Davis has been most at home in South Florida. He went just 22-12 in his first three years at The U but broke through with 18 wins in 1998-99, then went 11-1 in 2000, barely missing out on the BCS title game. He left to become the Cleveland Browns’ head coach, and his successor, Larry Coker, won a national title in 2001 and nearly won another in 2002.
Davis’ Miami connections are legion. He went just 24-35 with the Browns and went just 28-23 in four seasons at UNC (technically 12-23 after vacated wins), but when the FIU job came open after the 2016 season, his name made tons of sense. And in three recruiting cycles since taking the job, he’s signed 47 three- or four-star prospects, most of whom have been based in or around the Miami area.
After two seasons of statistical overachievement, I would typically be warning you to sell your FIU stock at this point. The randomness and luck will regress to the mean. But as they do so, talent could take over. FIU not only returns a vast majority of last year’s two-deep (sixth in returning production) but also boasts a burgeoning set of recent star recruits hoping to break onto the depth chart.
At the moment, the Panthers’ roster features four three-star quarterbacks, seven three-star running backs, 15 three-star receivers, seven three-star offensive linemen, 10 three and four-star defensive linemen, six three-star linebackers, and six three-star defensive backs. No one else in Conference USA can match that level of potential.
It would take quite a bit of regression to the mean in the luck department to prevent this program from exploding. It has long appeared that returning to South Florida and building a mid-major power would be the perfect final verse of the 67-year old Davis’ career, and things are coming to fruition. Even if the Panthers had indeed only won six games in 2017 and seven in 2018, I’d be trying to talk you into a 2019 breakthrough. The inflated recent win total simply means you’ll be more easily convinced.
Rich Skrosky’s last two gigs before becoming Davis’ offensive coordinator, as I put it two years ago when he was hired, left different impressions. From 2011-13, he was Pete Lembo’s efficiency-heavy Ball State offensive coordinator, relying on quick, short passing to overcome a lack of explosiveness. As Elon’s head coach from 2014-16, well, we don’t really know what the intention was because the Phoenix were too bad to execute it.
FIU was certainly Ball State-like in one area. Whereas former BSU quarterback completed 64 percent of his passes under Skrosky, Bowling Green transfer James Morgan, FIU’s 2018 starter, completed 65 percent while getting the ball out of his hands quickly enough to avoid sacks (FIU ranked second in the country in sack rate).
Morgan’s top three receivers (two of whom return in 2019) all enjoyed success rates of 52 percent or higher, and FIU ranked an excellent 27th in passing marginal efficiency and 36th in marginal explosiveness.
Unfortunately, Skrosky loves a nice, balanced offense, and despite being slightly run-first overall, FIU couldn’t run the ball. Sure, the foursome of Napoleon Maxwell, Shawnderrius Phillips, D’Vonte Price, and Anthony Jones put up lovely cumulative stats — 379 carries, 1,974 yards, 22 touchdowns — but they were dramatically boom-and-bust. FIU ranked an untenable 117th in rushing marginal efficiency but a thrilling ninth in rushing marginal explosiveness.
Now, complementing an all-or-nothing run game with quick passing allowed FIU to catch up to the chains pretty well; despite facing a lot of second-and-9s, the Panthers were great at avoiding third-and-longs — only 39 percent of their third downs required seven or more yards, fifth-best in FBS.
Still, in terms of doing the most of what you’re best at, FIU’s offense wasn’t exactly optimal last year, and it made FIU inconsistent overall. As you see from the Panthers’ stat profile, their offensive percentile performance was 77th percentile or higher four times and 36th percentile or lower four times.
Experience tends to aid consistency, though, and FIU will have tons of experience this fall. Morgan’s back, as are two of his top three targets — Maurice Alexander (the most reliable weapon with a 68 percent catch rate) and Austin Maloney (the most explosive, at 19 yards per catch) — and basically every target thereafter.
There are quite a few juniors and seniors atop the two-deep here, but all those recent recruits are banging on the door, from mid-three-star sophomore Cadarius Gaskin (only three catches last year, but one was a 75-yard touchdown) to redshirt freshmen Maurquel Dillard and Jordan Underwood, to five incoming three-star freshmen. Morgan might have to throw more just out of accommodation.
Of course, it appears he’s going to have all four of his RBs back, too. Maxwell appears to have been granted an extra year of eligibility after missing two full seasons with injury, and as far as I can tell, Phillips is back with the team after missing the bowl with legal issues. Price and Jones are scheduled to return, too, meaning that once again, the youngsters — redshirt freshmen Shaun Peterson Jr. and Demarcus Townsend, incoming freshman Lexington “Flex” Joseph* — will have to bide their time.
Jones was the No. 4 rusher in this group, but his story is probably the one you’re most familiar with. He rushed for 92 yards and three scores (including the game-winner) in the Bahamas Bowl against Toledo, which was noteworthy enough; he did so, however, about three months after getting shot. That’s, uh, impressive degree of difficulty there.
The line does face a bit of a retooling. All-conference guard Jordan Budwig is gone, as are three others who combined for 17 starts in 2018. Three players with starting experience — including two-year starting center Dallas Connell — are back, but the Panthers will have at least two new starters up front, and Davis doesn’t have as many former star recruits here as elsewhere. (Mountainous JUCO transfer Logan Gunderson could certainly alleviate any concerns by hitting the ground running.)
* If you’re still on the fence about FIU’s potential, let the fact that Davis just signed a back named Flex from Miami Central push you over the top.
Dan Morgan … Ed Reed … Sean Taylor … Davis’ Miami defenses were defined by the ability to both push you around and then swoop in to collect your mistakes when you got desperate. FIU was able to do at least the latter half of that last year.
The run defense was quite bad. Despite sporadic contributions from two four-star JUCO tackles (Teair Tart and Tayland Humphrey), the Panthers ranked 111th in Rushing S&P+, 114th in opportunity rate (percentage of non-sack carries gaining at least four yards), and 116th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). If you were patient, you could find room to run.
If you had to pass, however, things probably weren’t going to work out well for you. FIU ranked just 91st in standard downs marginal efficiency but 18th on passing downs. There wasn’t much of a pass rush, but the secondary was dynamite. Three DBs (plus linebacker Sage Lewis) defensed at least seven passes, and safeties Richard Dames and Dorian Hall — a sophomore and freshman, respectively, last year — picked off three each.
And now almost literally everyone returns. Dames, Hall, and fellow safeties Olin Cushion III and Tyree Johnson all return, and while corner Emmanuel Lubin departs, seniors Stantley Thomas-Oliver III and Isaiah Brown and junior Rishard Dames are all back to man the corner position. (The Panthers also might have Iowa transfer Josh Turner in the rotation if the NCAA’s Random Wheel of Destiny deems him immediately eligible.)
This should be one of the best Group of Five pass defenses in the country, one around which you can build a fun identity. But it will only be so effective if FIU still can’t defend the run.
Tart and Humphrey could be the keys. Tart was all-or-nothing (seven of his 16.5 tackles were for a loss), and Humphrey didn’t appear capable of playing many snaps (he’s listed at 6’5, 350), but they’ll be asked to make more of a contribution following the loss of tackles Anthony Johnson and Jermaine Sheriff. The ends (junior Noah Curtis, sophomore Jason Mercier, etc.) were both young and unproductive in 2018, and the hope has to be that solving the former will solve the latter.
FIU is 8-2 in one-possession games under Davis, and while that might be unsustainable in the long-term, having nice, balanced special teams units can be a secret close-game weapon, and the Panthers have been top-50 in Special Teams S&P+ each year.
FIU will miss Stone Wilson’s booming punts (44-yard average, though he did outkick coverage sometimes), but Sean Young’s kickoffs were automatic touchbacks, and in Jose Borregales the Panthers have one of the more strong-legged kickers in the league. And Maurice Alexander is scary in punt returns. This should again be a strong unit.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|12-Sep||at Louisiana Tech||86||-3.4||42%|
|26-Oct||at Middle Tennessee||104||3.5||58%|
|9-Nov||at Florida Atlantic||79||-4.5||40%|
It’s hard not to be excited about this team, isn’t it? Even if S&P+ isn’t? Because of the run inefficiency on both sides of the ball, and because of the a-little-too-good close-game fortune, FIU ranked only 96th last year and is projected to improve to only 88th. That’s a reminder that we might not see all the pieces fall into place just yet … but it’s not inconceivable that we see a decent-sized leap.
Even at just 88th, S&P+ still gives FIU an excellent shot at six or more wins thanks to a schedule that is cakey even by C-USA standards. Only one opponent is projected higher than 77th, and eight are projected 98th or worse. So just as the good fortune wears off, easy scheduling and massive recruiting kick in. That’ll do.
Even if FIU’s record is a bit inflated, this is working out exactly as we might have envisioned for Davis. I’m excited to see how far he can take this program, and it’s perhaps just a few answers in the trenches away from a C-USA title run.