Florida International U

FIU in near-must win vs. Rice to become bowl eligible

FIU coach Ron Turner, left, walks on the sideline during a game against Marshall , Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, in Miami.
FIU coach Ron Turner, left, walks on the sideline during a game against Marshall , Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, in Miami. AP

Here’s why Saturday’s FIU football noon mimosa matchup with Rice likely will go a long way toward determining whether the Panthers will spend December preparing for more than finals week and the holidays:

FIU (3-5, 2-2 in Conference USA) needs three wins in the last four games to become bowl eligible. Since joining FBS in 2005, FIU pulled off a three-game winning streak five times, two of those times in 2011, the Panthers’ last bowl season.

So, with past history and current youth putting three consecutive wins under “Unlikely,” the Panthers need a win Saturday against the defending conference champions to set themselves up for the final three games.

Coaches from the flying wedge to the spread option have preached one-game-at-a-time — the current version is “1-0 each week,” used this week by Rice’s David Bailiff — and FIU coach Ron Turner’s a career hat-and-whistle guy. Neither that nor the Panthers coming off a dismal 1-11 record in 2013 kept Turner from having the goals of getting to and winning a bowl game posted in the weight room.

“Not just get to it — get to it and win it,” Turner said.

“I told them we’re starting the late third quarter of our season,” Turner said. “It’s time to make a big push. Our objective at the start of the season is to go to and win a bowl game. Still very much attainable. We’ve just got to take care of business one at a time. We’ve got Rice up next.”

Bowl bids these days, especially at the lower rung, get driven by the same trio that drives real estate — location, location, location.

Though FIU administrators, including President Mark Rosenberg, attended the announcement of the Miami Beach Bowl, the inaugural bowl at Marlins Park is committed to Brigham Young University (if 4-4 BYU becomes bowl eligible) against an American Athletic Conference opponent. The BYU spot was supposed to go to a Conference USA team but in a cozy bit of switching, the AAC got BYU for the Miami Beach Bowl and gave Conference USA its Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl spot.

Yes, there’s a bowl game in the Bahamas, to be played at noon on Dec.24. Just like there’s a Boca Raton Bowl the night before, Dec.23, on Howard Schnellenberger Field at FAU Stadium. Conference USA holds primary links to three other bowls — Heart of Dallas, Hawaii and Gilden New Mexico — but a Miami-based team is much more likely to land in Boca or the Bahamas.

Those bowl possibilities, however, become moot if FIU loses two more games. After starting 0-3, Rice (4-3, 2-1) didn’t lose in October behind an offense scoring 41 or more points in four of the past five games and a parade of downtrodden opponents: Army, Hawaii and North Texas. Intriguing as that offense going against FIU’s turnover-gobbling defense might be, more so might be Rice’s revived defense against an FIU offense without leading rusher Alex Gardner and recently without downfield wide receiver production.

As for the rest of the season, FBS rookie Old Dominion, after knocking off Rice in its first Conference USA game, has lost its past four conference games. FIU closes the season at maladroit North Texas (2-6, 0-4), right now the clear-cut worst team in the conference. FIU’s Senior Night opponent, Middle Tennessee State (5-3, 4-1), replaces skill players as if they’re being sold on Amazon.com.

“[Making a bowl] would be another step for us,” Turner said. “If we get there, it would be great, be a nice big step for us. If we don’t get there, we’re still making strides and taking steps in the right direction.”

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