Given the program’s history, it’s shocking to ponder. But FIU could play in — and host — the Conference USA championship game on December 2.
The Panthers (6-2, 4-1) have won three straight games — all as underdogs — including Saturday night’s 14-7 win over Texas-San Antonio.
If the Panthers win the next three, they will cancel their December 2 date with visiting Massachusetts. In that scenario, FIU would host the C-USA title game if it has the best overall conference record or play on the road if the likely West winner prevails in a tie-breaker. (North Texas leads the West with a 5-1 league mark.)
FIU should be favored this Saturday when it hosts Old Dominion (3-6, 1-4). After that, FIU’s annual rivalry against Florida Atlantic (6-3, 5-0) could be the most significant in history as the Owls are the only C-USA team with a spotless league record. If FIU wins out, it would win the head-to-head tie-breaker with FAU.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The Panthers’ final league game is at home against Western Kentucky (5-4, 3-2), a dangerous opponent that went 11-3 last season and is led by talented senior quarterback Mike White, a former Broward County prep star. White leads the league in passing yards.
It won’t be easy, but FIU has a chance to tie or surpass the program record for most wins, set during former coach Mario Cristobal’s 8-5 season in 2011.
Current FIU coach Butch Davis, who inherited a 4-8 team, has clearly made an impact, and he’s thrilled with the Panthers’ progress.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a team that has gotten as much out of their talent as this one,” Davis said.
FIU’s leaders include seniors such as quarterback Alex McGough, wide receiver Thomas Owens, defensive end Newton Salisbury, defensive back Brad Muhammad and linebackers Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint.
Owens leads the league in receiving yards (100.0 yards per game). Muhammad is second with four interceptions. McGough is fifth in passing yards (216.0), and Williams is eighth in tackles (8.4).
Against Texas-San Antonio, the seniors stepped up once again as McGough tossed two touchdown passes and Owens caught one. On defense, Williams had a game-high 13 tackles, including four for losses, and two sacks. Wint had 12 tackles and Salisbury had nine tackles, including 2.5 sacks.
Other seniors who have made significant contributions this year include leading rusher Alex Gardner, starting tight end Pharoah McKever and safties Niko Gonzalez and Bryce Canady, who are both among FIU’s top five tacklers.
“We’re blessed,” Davis said. “Our seniors are not only some of our best players but also great leaders. McGough’s enthusiasm is infectious. Owens is so dependable. Canady and Muhammad are both former walk-ons. It’s a unique group of seniors.”
The Panthers had a game-saving goal-line stand against Rice earlier this season, but the one they produced against Texas-San Antonio was their best of the year, Davis said. UTSA had four tries inside FIU’s two-yard line.
FIU’s special teams on Saturday also came through on the play that led to FIU’s winning touchdown. Fred Russ and Daniel Jackson had a simultaneous hit to force a kickoff-return fumble, recovered by FIU’s Shermarke Spence.
Davis also said that Williams will be FIU’s candidate for C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Week.
“He’s got really good instincts,” Davis said. “He can diagnose plays, and he has the speed and burst to run it down.”