There is only one way to go for the Golden Panthers and that is up. Florida International University, which started its football program in 2002, experienced a winless season that was marred by an ugly team brawl with the Miami Hurricanes. Last season, FIU lost 28 lettermen and had several players kicked off the team or suspended. With all those circumstances to deal with, head coach Don Strock resigned with three games to go. In comes a local influence in Mario Cristobal, a former player at the University of Miami. Mario played lineman for the Hurricanes, and has had coaching stints with Miami and Rutgers. The Golden Panthers return eight starters on offense, and six starters on defense. Most of the back-ups did get plenty of playing time and will try to build on that experience.
The offense will improve because the offensive line will have four starters returning with experience from last season. The line was mostly ineffective last season, as the team averaged just 57 yards rushing per game and allowed 32 sacks. The quarterback position will be up for grabs after Taveras Kendrick, the schools all-time leading passer, has moved on. The QB job is wide open, but the early nod is going to back up Paul McCall. A'mod Ned (482 yards, two touchdowns) returns as the leading rusher and should have a better season with a more experienced line. The receivers looks weak even though several freshmen received playing time last season. Leading receiver Chandler Williams departed with 67 receptions, leaving three sophomores to start in a new spread offense that has been implemented.
The defensive line lost star Antwan Barnes to the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth round of the draft. However, seven of the top defensive lineman return, helping the school to its highest quarterback sack total and the least amount of rushing yards allowed in the program's short history. The linebackers will be the weakest unit on the team, as they lose three starters in Keyonis Bouie, James Black and Alexander Bostic. Bostic and Bouie will be especially hard to replace, as they were Sun Belt Conference first-team selections. The secondary must replace three of the four starters from last season, but return six players with starting experience. That is good news as the unit was much improved last season. Special teams were a disaster last season, and there will be new faces here.
FIU is the youngest team in the country with a new coach and a good work ethic that believes in discipline as a core value. The offense should be better this season, but the defense must replace six of its seven leading tacklers. The Golden Panthers will be one of the most improved teams this season, but will have some growing pains with a new coaching staff and their new schemes.