In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
After unexpectedly making noise last year, FIU is technically ahead of schedule entering the second season under head coach Butch Davis but the Panthers will look a heck of a lot different in 2018.
Gone are several key players, including leading passer Alex McGough, leading rusher Alex Gardner and leading receiver Thomas Owens. Meanwhile, the best recruiting class in program history arrives on campus and they have a superb defensive line.
They were dismantled by UCF, 61-17, in the opener, needed a late touchdown to beat Alcorn State at home in Week 2 and had their Week 3 road game at Indiana canceled because of Hurricane Irma.
Their path to eight wins wasn't gorgeous (they beat a miserable Charlotte team by one point after trailing by 15 in the third quarter) but the Panthers far exceeded expectations with a two-deep laced with question marks.
Don't fixate on the 2017 stats. They don't show an eight-win team. Watch the tape and you'll see a much better — albeit not that disciplined — team than the poor turnover and penalty numbers suggest.
Head Coach: Butch Davis (2nd Year, 8-5)
Butch Davis became FIU's fifth head coach (including interim) since the 2006 season when the former Miami, North Carolina and Cleveland Browns coach took over in late 2016.
He tied the program record for wins in his first year and delivered their first bowl appearance since 2011.
“People say, ‘Wow, Coach, these new guys they really turned it around!’ but you look at the depth chart this year versus the depth chart a year ago and it’s a lot of the same guys,” Davis said before the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. “What’s that tell you? The talent was here to make that happen. I knew that as soon as I saw them, and I told them that.”
QB Alex McGough, RB Alex Gardner, WR Thomas Owens, TE Pharaoh McKever, LB Anthony Wint, LB Treyvon Williams, CB Brad Muhammad, S Bryce Canady, S Niko Gonzalez
Alex McGough's graduation gives FIU an open quarterback competition for the first time since he won the starting job as a freshman in 2014. McGough was a seventh-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in the 2018 draft.
Alex Gardner and Thomas Owens accounted for 44 touchdowns and nearly 6,000 total yards over the last four years. Their best offensive lineman, Jordan Budwig, was slated to be listed here after a wild career that included two lost seasons to injuries and an all-conference nod last year but he earned a sixth year of eligibility.
FIU's defense struggled over the last five games, especially through the air, but they'll still miss three key defensive backs.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Christian Alexander, QB Maurice Alexander, RB Anthony Jones, G Jordan Budwig, K Jose Borregales
Of the 11 Panthers who earned all-conference honors last year, kicker Jose Borregales is one of only two returnees. Borregales, from nearby Booker T. Washington High School, was sensational as a freshman, hitting 14 of 16 field-goal attempts and all 40 PATs.
Junior quarterbacks Christian Alexander and Maurice Alexander (no relation) are the front-runners to replace McGough. They split reps all spring and, barring an unexpected development over the summer, Davis will wait until fall camp to name a starter. Maurice is more experienced, having started four games as a freshman in 2016 and appeared in eight games last year, including the bowl game when he replaced an injured McGough. He (and the offensive line) played very poorly in the 28-3 loss.
“We learned a big lesson from the bowl game,” Butch Davis said at the start of spring practice. “We clearly were not prepared for Alex [McGough] not to finish a game. Thank God he made it through 12 and he got hurt in the 13th game. If that injury had occurred in week three, four or five, it’s any eye opener for us.”
The winner will have Anthony Jones as their primary ball-carrier. The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder averaged 4.9 yards per carry his first two seasons, 2015 and 2016, before missing all of 2017 with an injury.
Again, their best offensive lineman, guard Jordan Budwig, was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all of 2015 and 2016 with injuries.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Fermin Silva, DE Jermaine Sheriff, DE Milord Juste, DT Anthony Johnson, LB Sage Lewis, CB Isaiah Brown
FIU would've been ranked well outside of the top 100 without their defensive line. Even after losing Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams, they're loaded. Top-end talent, reliable mid-level players and a ton of depth.
For opposing offensive lines, pick your poison: Give help on the outside in hopes of containing one of the most disruptive returning edge players in the nation, Fermin Silva? Focus on the big, powerful Anthony Johnson inside?
“The offensive linemen won’t know where I’m coming from,” said Silva (below), who is expected to play linebacker and defensive end and is their other returning all-conference player. “And it’s going to get me ready for the next level. It’s fun.”
Linebacker Sage Lewis had a breakout redshirt sophomore season, doubling his tackles and tackles for loss as one of the Panthers' primary disruptors. He could do it again in 2017 and has been lauded by Davis and the defensive staff all offseason.
“It’s critical for him to be a leader,” Davis said of Lewis. “I think he’s comfortable and confident. He’s taken control of the huddle. He’s exceeded our expectations.”
QB James Morgan, WR Ivan Thomas, WR Zahir Turner, WR Cadarius Gaskin, DE Jordan Wood, DT Teair Tart-Spencer, DT Tayland Humphrey, CB Richard Dames
The FIU coaching staff went full HAM in their first full year recruiting. Like full HAM. THEY WENT FULL HAM IN RECRUITING!
Teair Tart-Spencer and Tayland Humphrey were both four-star JUCO defensive tackles and they got three-star receivers Ivan Thomas, Zahir Turner and Cadarius Gaskin to pass on Power Five offers.
Former top-500 weak-side defensive end Jordan Wood is eligible after transferring from Georgia Tech and true freshman corner Richard Dames is expected to play immediately. And Bowling Green graduate transfer James Morgan should get a shot at the starting job in fall camp.
FIU leaves the Miami metro only once in the season's first eight weeks. They have five home games, one game at Old Dominion, one game at Miami (FL) in Miami Gardens and one bye week.
They do play three of four conference games on the road from late October through mid-November.
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