Florida International “climbed the mountain”—so to speak—last year when the Panthers shared their first conference championship, played and won their first bowl game, and recorded their first winning season since the program was created in 2001.
Now comes an equally tough task: Staying on top.
The Panthers, who finished with a 7-6 record after rallying to beat Toledo 34-32 in the Little Caesars Bowl, begin defense of the title they shared with Troy last year with a home opener against North Texas.
They are taking a humble approach as they approach the Thursday-night affair with the Mean Green.
“We know that we have to be better,” said senior quarterback Wesley Carroll, a returning starter. “Seven games wasn’t enough to win last year.
“Our goal right now is to win each and every game, and we demand nothing less of that. We’re aiming for perfection. We talk about every day being 1-and-0.”
The Panthers will enter the 2011 campaign as conference favorites based on voting by league coaches. They have an opportunity to get a nice head start in the league race in the first month.
After hosting the Mean Green, picked to finish sixth in the league, the Panthers have non-conference affairs on the road at Louisville and back home against Central Florida, then are host to Sun Belt rival Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 24.
The Cajuns were picked to finish eighth in the nine-team league.
If things go as expected, the Panthers could be 2-0 in league play before beginning a run of six consecutive conference games with a trip to Arkansas State on Oct. 18.
•As unlikely it might seem for a player in the Sun Belt Conference to win it, T.Y. Hilton’s performance over his career—scoring touchdowns by rushing, receiving, returning and even passing are just part of his legacy—is generating talk of a Heisman Trophy run for the FIU senior wide receiver.
“It’s very exciting, but my mind’s not really on that,” Hilton said when asked about the speculation. “It’s good to be acknowledged for that award, but right now I’m focused on helping my team and helping succeed on the field.”
•Two transfers who hope to be cleared to play right away because of hardship status joined the Panthers in fall camp. They are RB Daquan Hargrett, who played last year at West Virginia (three rushes for 14 yards in 10 games), and WR James Louis from Ohio State. Louis sat out last year as a redshirt for the Buckeyes.
•Former North Carolina coach Butch Davis, who was fired in late July just days before the Tar Heels started fall camp, spent some time at an FIU practice. Davis was the defensive line coach when Panthers coach Mario Cristobal played at Miami and later was the Hurricanes head coach when Cristobal was a graduate assistant at UM in the late 1990s.
Series History: FIU leads North Texas, 4-1 (last meeting, 2010, FIU 34-10).
Scouting The Offense: The Panthers have several weapons at the skill positions with depth at receiver and running back, plus an experienced quarterback in senior Wesley Carroll. Three starters also return up front. Unless they turn the ball over regularly, the Panthers should be one of the most productive teams in the conference.
Scouting The Defense: The defense made major improvements last year, especially against the run. There are some key losses—like CB Anthony Gaitor and LB Toronto Smith—from that unit, but the Panthers do seem to be developing some depth. The transition to new coordinator Todd Orlando from Connecticut has been smooth, Cristobal said.
Quote To Note: “We’ve certainly done a great job of just knowing, getting a good football IQ. Everybody on the field knows where they need to be. It’s not a matter of learning the offense. It’s about progressing the offense and executing better at a high level and being able to do things that we weren’t able to do last year.”—QB Wesley Carroll, in the impact of experienced players returning to the offense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week‘S GAME: North Texas at FIU, Sept. 1—North Texas is picked to finish near the bottom of the league, but there is always a bit of a mystery about a team with a first-year coach. Dan McCarney was named to take over the Mean Green program at the end of last season.
Keys To The Game: Avoid turnovers. Five of them were costly in last year’s opening loss to Rutgers, and a late turnover thwarted a comeback bid in the loss to Middle Tennessee in the regular-season finale. The rush defense needs to contain North Texas RB Lance Dunbar.
Players To Watch:
WR T.Y. Hilton—Hilton is a do-everything guy for the Panthers—receiving, rushing, returning. It’s going to be interesting to see how defenses go about trying to contain him and what FIU will do to get him free. Opponents kick to him at their own risk.
DE Tourek Williams—A second-team All-Sun Belt selection as a sophomore last year, Williams is a key figure in FIU’s defense, especially in providing the Panthers a pass rush. He had six sacks last year.
DT Isame Faciane—Faciane had one start in 12 appearances as a true freshman last year, but he had a monster spring and could be the key to an improved run defense.
•Sophomore CB DeMarkus Perkins joined the Panthers after the first week of practice and figures to be a key addition to the secondary. He played one year at Highland (Kan.) Community College and was thought at one time to be headed for Arizona State.
•Junior C Giancarlo Revilla, who had a good spring, solidified his hold on the starting job once fall camp opened. He is looking to replace departed Brad Serini, a four-year starter for the Panthers.
•Junior WR Rocky Vann is expected to miss the start of the season after dislocating his elbow early in fall camp.