C-USA state of the program: FIU

So this is the start of a series of state of the programs. Some kind of previews if you will, just that it is as of now super early for that. I intend to do this at irregular instances with all C-USA programs. If I find the time I will also add all of UNTs out of conference oponents.

The start is made by FIU

There are basically only 2 (and even those are debatable) reasons why the athletic director of an FBS school would schedule not one, but two FCS schools in out of conference play. 1) You believe that the rest of the schedule is taxing enough and your team is good enough to get to bowl eligibility anyway — This is not the case FIU is in. 2) You believe your team is not gonna make it to a bowl anyway, and thus giving up a win that can count towards eligibility does not matter as much as an additional realistic chance at a win for the Fans at home. It thus says a lot about the current state of FIUs program, that FIU’s season starts off with 2 FCS opponents. And it says even more that I will not be the only one who has a decent modicum of doubt whether FIU is actually going to win both of those games.

Last Season Record 1-11

  • at Maryland Terrapins, Lost 43-10
  • UCF Knights, Lost 38-0
  • Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, Lost 34-13
  • at Louisville Cardinals, Lost 72-0
  • at Southern Miss Golden Eagles, Won 24-23
  • UAB Blazers, Lost 27-24
  • Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, Lost 23-7
  • East Carolina Pirates, Lost 34-13
  • at Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, Lost 48-0
  • at UTEP Miners, Lost 33-10
  • Marshall Thundering Herd, Lost 48-10
  • at Florida Atlantic Owls, Lost 21-6

F/+ overall: 125th (dead last). Offense: 124th, defense 114th, special teams: 119th.

High point: Has to be the win over southern Miss. Yes Southern Miss was then on the longest losing streak in the nation. And it was not pretty by any means. But it was a win that made sure the season was not going to end without any experience of success. And it brough the hope of improvement.

Low point: Pick one. There are many valid options. Bethune Cookman comes to mind, because it was not only a loss to a FCS team, but it was also lopsided. But Bethune Cookman was actually a very decent FCS team. Losing by 72 to Louisville is humiliating, particularly when there are rumors that Ron Turner asked for a running clock. But then again, Louisville made many teams look bad last season. It could be the UAB loss because it was actually close. It could be FAU, because that is a rivalry. But my choice is the loss at UTEP because it killed any hope that FIU was actually looking like it was improving after the win at southern miss, and because UTEP was terrible in its own right.

2013 all conference players: 1 (second team), 4 honorable mentions

returning all conference players: 2 honorable mentions

2013 all conference freshman: 2

Coaching (history): Nobody outside of FIUs AD really understood at the time, why Mario Cristobal was fired at the end of the 2012 season. Sure that season was disappointing (3-9), particularly considering that FIU had been seen as a conference favorite prior to the season. But firing a coach that had pretty much built the program from nothing for one bad season after he had led the program to its first consecutive bowl seasons? Surely this had only been done because there was a fool proof plan on who to hire next. Yet the search was one that must have left the FIU faithful more displeased than almost any other head coach search all of the FBS had to offer in the last 5 years. It seemed as if Garcia thought he could get Butch Davis, but FIU was left at the altar. In the end Pete Garcia settled on Ron Turner.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with Ron Turner he might not have been the great bringer of hope. He does have qualifications. 8 seasons as the coach in Illinois, including a BCS berth. But also a 35-57 record over all and a 4-19 record in the final 2 seasons there. When he got fired he left college football for 8 seasons to be an NFL coordinator and later position coach. This had settling and experiment written all over it, but coaching hires are to some degrees crap shoots and this might have gone well. It still could. But right now things don’t look good. The first season was the uglier kind of an 1-11 season. Substantial improvement has to come quickly.

Despite it’s good placement recruiting ground wise, FIU is still a difficult place to win at. The fact that Cristobal managed two bowls in a row at FIU might actually say more about him than that 1-11 season says about Ron Turner. After all, Cristobals first season also was 1-11.

But why Pete Garcia took a crap shoot when he had Mario Cristobal is still beyond me. And now Pete Garcia pretty much admits the team will not be bowl eligible by scheduling two FCS teams. Together with situation in men’s basketball (FIU is not eligible for the post season due to APR), if C-USA needs one AD to be booted, it is this one. Right now, it looks like FIU is going nowhere until this happens.

Offense: 11 starters returning

Last season, FIU wasn’t really all any good at passing. The problem with that was that it was also absolutely unable to run. The team regressed pretty much across the board on offense. The reasons might have been a bit different depending on where you look, but bad line play was probably the most important reason. FIUs quarterbacks got sacked a whopping 52 times last year. That is more than once for every 6 passes thrown. More than once for every 3 completions FIU managed. It is hard to concentrate on passing when you know you could get sacked anytime now. No wonder FIU never gave up on it’s running game. One stat that surprised me: FIU averaged more than 30 minutes of possession time. The pace the offense went at must have been very slow. This was probably a wise decision, as depth was a problem in many units across both offense and defense.

This will be Jake Medlocks last year. After a pretty good freshman season things have slowed down. Partially because he plays a bruising style that is likely to get him hurt. The fact that the line could not protect anybody last year was not helping though. When he does not play E.J Hilliard takes the rudder. And Hilliard may not run like Medlock, but he actually had better passing numbers in both of the last two seasons. he completed 58.3% of the passes compared to Medlocks 47.2%. But both numbers are regressions from 2012.

There should have been 3 senior wide receivers at the top of the depth charts last season. That did not happen. The good news about that is, that the most reliable weapons in last years passing game are coming back and will still be young. Tight end Jonnu Smith was a freshman and the most reliable safety valve. Junior wide receivers TJ Lowder and Taylor Clinton all came pretty much out of nowhere. Still though, that 2 TE were among the top four receivers in yards, probably says a lot about the down field threat problems that FIU had. Some of that might have had to do with the offensive line.

In the running game, there might have been more to the problems than just the line play. FIU was thin on experience in the backfield before the season, but prospective number 1 RB, senior Kedrik Rhodes never made it to the field in 2013 because he got arrested. That left sophomore Lamarq Caldwell and freshman Silas Spearman with the bulk of the carries, and it did not go well. Neither managed an average of more than 3.2 yards. How bad were things last year in the running game? FIU managed a total of 915 yards. That is 76 yards per game.

When you can’t run block and not keep opponents from sacking the QB that suggests that the O-line was the source of the most atrocious problems. To be fair with Ron Turner, the O-line had already been bad in Cristobals last year, and the cupboard on the offensive line was really bare. No part of the team was as inexperienced as the offensive line, which had one Freshman (Budwig Jordan) a sophmore (Aaron Nielson) and 3 juniors starting, none of whom had more than 4 starts prior to the season. growing pains were predictable, and some improvement seems decently probable in this lines second season. But looking at how bad things were, improvement might not be enough. Even with improvement, this line might still be too bad to allow for big steps. And those inexperienced juniors from last season are already seniors this season and playing their last season before they have to get replaced again. Recruiting the offensive line has to be a Ron Turner priority. If I counted right FIU signed 5 O linemen this season, quite a few of which are big boys. Whether they also bring the other necessary qualities remains to be seen. Maybe someone will be able to break into the starting lineup right off the bat, but immediate help in the 2 deep is absolutely necessary for FIU.

So all in all FIU brings pretty much everyone back from an offense that was somewhat on the young side and extremely inexperienced. Bringing 11 starters back on one side of the ball almost always leads to improved performance. Growth can be expected. Growth is absolutely needed. Whether there is enough talent for a big jump instead of a small one can be questioned though. The critical unit is the Offensive line. FIU is starting back from the very bottom of the FBS.

Defense: 7 starters returning

This may not be high praise, but FIUs defense was better than the offense. And it was not easy being this defense which often started in bad field position. Teams tended to run on FIU. That may be because the opponents were usually a few touchdown ahead. It may also be, because when you got into a second or third and long, the defense was actually pretty decent at getting off the field. It was not a good idea to risk getting behind schedule. The defense just did not get to third and longs often enough. It might also be though, because FIU did have mediocre to ok pass rush, and while it did manage a small amount of interceptions, why take that risk, if you can get a steady dose of running. And if you did get more than 3 yards, chances were you either met Markeith Russel, or you found some very luscious looking green grass. That happened quite often.

The Defensive line loses its two top tacklers from last year, who also combined for 20 tackles for loss (or 35% of the team), but it brings back both starting defensive ends, (Perine, and Wakefield), who will be juniors this year. But it is not like there was no preparation. 3 more Defensive tackles, all of whom will be sophomores and juniors made at least 10 tackles, and should have at least some chance at manning up the middle. The line will be young, but not as inexperienced as it could be. Still, getting a bit of a better push against the run would be very crucial for this defense and I don’t think FIU loses monsters here, but whether the new players will plug that hole more efficiently than the seniors who left is not certain.

The linebacker corps at FIU was reeeally thin, for the second part of the season cornerback Derrick Jones even had to move to the position to generates some semblance of depth, and promptly started a hand full of games. Looking at this, it is quite uncertain whether FIU can improve on its linebacker position. The recruiting class contains only 2 linebackers and FIU loses its best man in that position from last year in Markeith Russel, who made 96 tackles, 43 more than any other player on the roster. So a leader will on the position will have to emerge. The number 2 to 4 linebackers -all juniors- return. It is worrying though, that even together they do not combine to have as many tackles as Russel had by himself, and that the group as whole combined for only one sack and only 6 tackles for loss. Despite the number of returnees, this leaves me with a decently big question mark as to whether this group actually has the talent and depth to improve upon last year’s performance.

The defensive backs were probably the best unit on this defense last season. Particularly safety Justin Halley shined with 11 defensed passes on 53 tackles, and most importantly 3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. and he will come back for a senior year. Other players were easier picked on by offenses. Randy Harvey for example made quite a few tackles, with only very few passes defensed, which suggests that defenses got away with passing to the player he covered. The unit was not particularly deep, but senior cornerback is the only one not coming back, and 5 new recruits come into the fold some of whom might increase depth from year one. So this should remain the best part of this defense. Recruits:

The recruiting class of FIU does not look like a stunner, but considering that FIU went 4-18 the last two season it is not horrible either. It is mostly rated in the middle of C-USA or just below. It is a class exclusively made up from high school players, clearly suggesting that Ron Turner intends to build this the right/very slow (pick your favorite word here) way. It may also be interesting that Jake Medlocks brother Luke was signed this season. Like his brother he is also not only a QB but also a punter.

2014 Schedule

Date Opponent Saturday

Apr. 12 Spring Football Game FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Aug. 30 Bethune-Cookman Wildcats FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Sept. 6 Wagner Seahawks FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Sept. 13 Pittsburgh Panthers FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Sept. 20 Louisville Cardinals FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Sept. 27 at UAB Blazers Legion Field, Birmingham, AL Saturday

Oct. 4 Florida Atlantic Owls FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Oct. 11 at UTSA Roadrunners Alamodome, San Antonio, TX Saturday

Oct. 18 Marshall Thundering Herd FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Oct. 25 Open Date Saturday

Nov. 1 Rice Owls FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Nov. 8 at Old Dominion Monarchs Foreman Field, Norfolk, VA Saturday

Nov. 15 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders FIU Stadium, Miami, FL Saturday

Nov. 22 at North Texas Mean Green Apogee Stadium, Denton, TX

Key Game: there are quite a few choices here. Revenge against Bethune Cookman is important. Both to kick the season of with some hope, and to ascert the status of being a real FBS program. the Old Dominion game is crucial for the feeling of self worth, as might the game against UAB. And then there is the Shula bowl. Which FIU is unlikely to win. But you never know in rivalry games.

The look forward:

This team was young last year, and it will still be decently young next season. It feels like 2015 is the year this team is supposed to achieve more than 2014. And that is not just because of the 2 FCS teams on the schedule. But for any kind of buzz to be created for 2015, substantial improvement has to be visible this season. And something will have to be done to mae sure the Offensive line will be ready in 2015.

FIU really got hosed by the league office when it comes to this years schedule. Then again, this just might set up for an easier schedule down the road, when FIU might actually be better able to take advantage of such. Chances are FIU is going to improve, particularly on offense. But FIU is coming from way down and improvement would have to be drastic to get to six (mind you seven for bowl eligibilty) wins. Winning against both FCS programs and as well as taking 2 against UAB, Old Dominion and FAU and then maybe a surprise win somewhere would constitute about as much success as I can envision. The range between 2 and 4 wins seems more realistic to me right now. For such improved results I expect improved line play on the offense. I can’t see a big jump forward on the defense, but if the offense and special teams can just give the better starting positions, then the life of the defensive production is likely to at least stay the same or slightly improve.

What it means for the University of North Texas: The game when FIU comes to Denton is a must win game. There can be no excuses for any other result.