The opening episode doesn’t always establish a season’s direction, theme or quality, in television or sports. FIU’s recent history, however, says watch Thursday’s first 2015 episode against Central Florida closely.
UCF will do if you’re looking for a good gauge for how close the Panthers are to their goal of being a Conference USA championship team. Preseason prognosticators rank the Knights as equivalent to the best in C-USA, their former league. Most consider UCF as the class of FIU’s non-conference opponents despite having only nine starters returning, among the fewest in the nation.
“It’s important, but it’s a long season,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “The biggest thing I want to see is I want to see our guys play like they’re coached to do. It’s a game day, but nothing should change as far as what your assignments, techniques and fundamentals are. Sometimes, that does on game day. They get hyped up and all of a sudden, they do stuff you’ve never seen them do before.”
(That last sentence recalls a bewildered Turner after his first game as FIU coach, in 2013, declaring he had never seen the coverages or techniques the Panthers used.)
The past four seasons, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, you didn’t need a weatherman to know which way FIU’s wind blows. Just check out the season opener.
▪ 2014: A dropped snap on the last play prevented FIU’s game-winning field goal attempt, thus allowing Bethune-Cookman leave FIU Stadium a 15-14 winner. The season: An improved FIU finished 4-8, but in two other losses, the Panthers late leads turned into losses after fumbles set up opponents’ winning field goals.
▪ 2013: Fumble recoveries led to FIU’s two scoring drives (a combined 13 plays for 25 yards) while Maryland romps for 576 yards and a 41-10 win. The season: Only getting four turnovers from Southern Miss kept the 1-11 Panthers, with an offense ranked last nationally, from being winless.
▪ 2012: An early 7-0 lead disappeared in a cascade of bad fundamentals, bad calls and Duke points as FIU’s strafed 46-26. The season: Almost everything preseason Sun Belt favorite FIU thought foundation solid, from the defense to the long snapper, crumbles in a 3-9 collapse.
▪ 2011: North Texas scored only on special teams and defense while FIU scored every way possible on offense in a 41-16 Panthers’ rout. The season: The Panthers defense finished among the top 20 in scoring defense after a season with a school-record eight wins and a second consecutive bowl appearance.
Not only does 2011 stand as the last win to start an FIU season, it’s the last season before this one that the Panthers began with an unquestioned No. 1 quarterback handling the same offense he had as a starter most of the previous season. Cue sophomore Alex McGough.
“I’m more relaxed,” McGough said, comparing himself now to before the aforementioned game against Bethune. “I know it’s not my first game. I’ve done this before. That just calms me down. It’s still a game. I’m still going to get nervous before the game.”
FIU redshirt junior defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury said, “When you work so hard in the summer like we have, you want to go out and put it together and set a tone. As far as momentum goes, it would be a big momentum boost and a tone setter going forward in the season. You always want that first game to be a big BOOM.”
LEONARD EYES RECORDS
Fifth-year senior Richard Leonard will start the season 1,183 yards behind FIU’s greatest player, T.Y. Hilton, on the Panthers’ career return yards list and 197 yards behind Hilton on the career punt return list. Leonard and Hilton share the school’s career record of six return touchdowns.
Leonard and senior defensive end Michael Wakefield each have five career fumble recoveries, two behind Daunte Foster’s FIU record.
▪ Thursday night’s game at UCF kicks off at 6 p.m. FIU is 29-66 after 6 p.m. in its history.
▪ Thursday’s weather forecast for Orlando calls for hot weather (low 80s) and possible rain. FIU is 17-44 when the kickoff temperature is above 80 degrees, but all four of its wins in 2014 came with the temperature high.
The one loss was to Pitt, which wore down the Panthers with the kind of muscular ground game UCF hopes to employ.