USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Turn right at awful, drive straight through terrible, merge through dreadful and stop two miles down the road at Florida International in 2013, as bad a team as any we've seen in the last decade of major college football.
How bad? Ask Louisville, which could have given FIU the Cumberland College treatment if not for grace, chivalry and a running clock. Better yet, ask Bethune Cookman, a Football Championship Subdivision program that led the Golden Panthers 34-7 early in the fourth quarter last September before allowing a touchdown to lead by 21 – and then blocked FIU's extra-point to provide the final margin of victory.
FOOTBALL FOUR: Rating and debating college football
There's bad, there's awful, there's dreadful and there's FIU. The worst part – as if it can get any worse – is the program was only two years removed from its second bowl win in a row, seemingly headed on a trajectory for top-half status among Florida's deep football pool. Today, FIU is clawing for a handhold in Conference USA, lapped not only by rival Florida Atlantic but a number of new arrivals from the FCS, if the program's not careful.
Well, you'll say, it can't get any worse. To which I reply: Yes, because it may be mathematically impossible to get worse. But it can be just as bad for at least another year while the Golden Panthers attempt to rediscover what it means to play college football under Ron Turner, the ex-Illinois coach who resurfaced last fall and quickly led FIU through a season to forget.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
This isn't going to go well. How could it? To be honest, what I see when looking at FIU's roster, overall personnel, coaching moves and conference change is a multiple-year rebuilding job – not three or four years, perhaps, but at least two seasons of growth, development and hard work on the recruiting trail before the Panthers are back to the point where winning six or more games in successive seasons is a possibility. Now, the big question: Does Turner and this staff have what it takes to get this done?
In a nutshell: October and November were better than September, which is as faint a compliment one can pay to a one-win team – because September was a total abomination. In the year's opening month, FIU lost to Maryland by 33 points, UCF by 38, Bethune Cookman by 21 and, most famously, Louisville by 72. In ages to come, FIU fans will speak of the Louisville loss in hushed tones to small children, scaring misbehaving kids straight with tales of Teddy Bridgewater, touchdowns in bunches and offensive ineptitude. It got better from there, you'll say, and I'll reply: Yeah, but that was pretty bad. Even if the latter stages of the season included a win – Southern Mississippi – it did feature losses to UAB, UTEP and, painfully, Florida Atlantic.
High point: The 24-23 win against the Golden Eagles. Only once all season would FIU outgain the competition. It was in this win, of course.
Low point: Louisville.
Tidbit: FIU would gain 27 yards in 43 plays against Louisville; in comparison, the Cardinals scored 28 points in the second quarter alone. The Panthers gained 27 yards through the air but lost 33 yards in sacks. Up 65-0 in the fourth quarter, Louisville began possession at the FIU 32-yard line with 6:52 left and drove 46 yards in seven plays, all runs, to go ahead 72-0. You'd say FIU quit, but that would suggest the team tried in the first place.
Tidbit (coaching edition): In his last three seasons as an FBS coach – last year with FIU, 2003-4 with Illinois – Ron Turner has gone a combined 5-30, twice going 1-11. Two of those five victories have come against FCS foes: Illinois State in 2003 and Florida A&M in 2004. During this three-year span – albeit a stretch a decade apart – Turner has gone 2-22 during conference play.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Ugliest non-conference FBS-on-FBS losses of 2013
1. Louisville 72, Florida International 0
2. Florida State 62, Nevada 7
3. Baylor 70, Louisiana-Monroe 7
4. Baylor 70, Buffalo 13
5. Iowa 59, Western Michigan 3
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Even with nine returning starters, opportunity abounds on the offensive side of the ball. One reason: Last year's offense was the worst in college football. Another: Muddled two-deeps near the end of last season carried over to this spring, increasing competitiveness. A third: Former offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler is now the offensive coordinator, meaning the Panthers could – emphasis on could – have a slightly different approach in 2014. A different approach may involve different personnel. The issue? Experience is up, which is great, but one crucial factor is missing: FIU simply lacks game-breaking athletes. Perhaps Shankweiler's history with offensive linemen and the running game will help the Panthers bridge the gap between the tackles while the offense locates some explosiveness.
Hence the importance of steady line play. It'll be a better group in 2014, if only due to experience – and a bit of confidence, another natural byproduct of a year's worth of starting time. Most of last year's rotation returns, minus one starter along the interior, and this increasingly seasoned group played more cohesively during the spring. There are reasons for optimism, beginning with the heightened number of combined career starts – far greater than at this point a year ago – and the potential seen in holdovers like left guard Jordan Budwig, center Donald Senat and left tackle David Delsoin. But even more so than any positional group on this offense – and several fit into this category – the offensive front enters the summer in prove-yourself territory: FIU might return a good number of contributors, but this returning group is far from a finished product.
Hurting matters is the dearth of field-stretching, corner-hitting, big-play options at the skill positions. The backfield is particularly unsettled: Lamarq Caldwell (542 yards) returns, but he's not a viable option as an every-down back; behind Caldwell stands Shane Coleman, Silas Spearman, Bowling Green transfer Anthon Samuel and Alfonso Randolph, the latter still dealing with the aftershocks of offseason knee surgery. The answer here is simple: If he can grasp the offense, Samuel (998 yards in 2012) needs to be the guy. The two-deep is similarly unsettled at wide receiver, though one imagines that senior Glenn Coleman's return – he missed all of last season – gives the Panthers a needed taste of experience in the receiver rotation. T.J. Lowder (24 receptions for 307 yards), Dominique Rhymes and Clinton Taylor are going to play, Turner's high on youngster Shug Oyegunle, a stocky slot receiver, and FIU also has a nice pair of intermediate targets in tight ends Jonnu Smith (39 for 388) and Ya'keem Griner. But the passing game won't keep opponents up at night.
Defense: A group allergic to close-quarters run defense looks to improve without two vital pieces in tackle Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman. Two ways to look at this: one, a weak interior gets weaker without two fairly disruptive linemen, or two, a weak interior can't get any weaker even without Faciane and Hickman. Whether the front can improve – or merely tread water, which would be disappointing – hinges on the play of two transfers, tackle Imarjaye Albury from West Virginia and end Wonderful Monds II from Buffalo, and how quickly each can assume starting roles. If this works, Albury will plug holes in the middle, with some help from Leonard Washington, Darrian Dyson and Marques Cheeks; while Monds joins Michael Wakefield, Giovani Francois and Denzell Perine in boosting a distressingly paltry pass rush. Cross your fingers.
There's an interesting competition brewing at middle linebacker between junior Luis Rosado (44 tackles) and sophomore Treyvon Williams, two holdovers tasked with replacing Markeith Russell, last year's leading tackler. Rosado has the edge in experience, as one might expect, but Williams' instincts and aggressiveness should land him the starting job by midseason, if not the opener. Moving Williams into the lineup would also let FIU shift Rosado back outside – it doesn't seem as if Williams could do the same – which would allow Davison Colimon, Patrick Jean and De'Shawn Hazziez to tussle for snaps at the third starting spot. Jean needs to live up to his potential.
After a year spent hitting the books, senior cornerback Richard Leonard returns in 2014 to solidify the outer fringes of FIU's defense. This is good news: Leonard isn't a stopper, but he's a ball-hungry defender who should draw the opposition's top target – and perform capably, though not superbly. Elsewhere, the Golden Panthers return another hawking defensive back in senior safety Justin Halley (53 tackles, 3 interceptions), a borderline all-conference candidate; safeties Jordan Davis and Demarkus Perkins; cornerbacks Sam Gervais and Randy Harvey, the latter the second starter; and have a number of first- or second-year players with three-star recruiting pedigree. It's the strongest group on an otherwise unimpressive defense.
Special teams: The one thing FIU did well on special teams last fall was punt and cover punts. Unfortunately, last year's top punter – a quarterback, believe it or not, and more on Jake Medlock in a moment – is no longer in the fold. It's clear that new coordinator Shannon Moore has his hands full. The bright note comes from FIU's solid core of younger talent, such as those impressive recruits in the secondary, and how that increased athleticism could have a decidedly positive impact on FIU's return game and coverage teams. But it's clearly a work in progress. Keep an eye on kicker Austin Taylor, who lacks consistency but has the sort of strong leg needed to convert stalled drives into points.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: After losing Jake Medlock to a transfer, the initial perception – one that may still come to pass – was that the job would fall to E.J. Hilliard, a junior still learning to play the quarterback position. One thing to remember, and this stands for not only Hilliard but the majority of the FIU offense: Individually, these players are not as terrible as they looked a season ago. Hilliard, for example, is not the tentative, error-prone, up-and-down thrower of last fall – he's not a star, but he's a serviceable option for an offense looking for baby steps in the right direction under center. Having said that, it's no lock that Hilliard enters the opener as the starter; better yet, it's far from certain that he'll be the starter by November.
One of the more pleasant surprises of the spring was the play of true freshman Alex McGough, who might be raw – as expected – but did flash some of the innate gifts crucial to quarterbacking success to go with an above-average arm. Seeing that Hilliard was a holdover from the previous regime and given the bumpy road ahead, could Turner and Shankweiler be willing to roll the dice with McGough, knowing he'll take his lumps but eventually develop into a stronger option at the position? For now, there might be more competition at running back; nevertheless, the quarterback competition bears noting as McGough and Hilliard head into offseason conditioning.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Bethune Cookman: Another loss to Bethune Cookman would essentially doom FIU to another miserable season. Assuming the Panthers take out Bethune Cookman and Wagner to start the year – no sure thing, of course – the biggest key to the year might be a two-game stretch against UAB and rival FAU. Two wins there would leave FIU at 4-2 entering the second weekend of October, believe it or not, which would raise the interest level surrounding the second half. My take: FIU doesn't win a game from Oct. 11 through the end of the season.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: FIU returns 16 starters, has shuffled its coaching staff, plays eight games at home and brings far more experience into 2014 than at this point a year ago – all good things that should be viewed positively, seeing that each paints this year's team as a stronger, deeper and more cohesive unit. The offensive line should be stouter. The backfield has options, even if the competition is unsettled. The secondary would excel in front of an above-average front seven. More than anything, the roster should be more comfortable in Turner's overall system, even if comfort itself stands far off in the distance.
Yet pessimism rules the day. The quarterback situation is a mess, pure and simple, barring Hilliard's potential bounce-back season or a player like McGough taking the reins in August. Outside of Samuel and the tight ends, the Panthers' skill players rank among the least intimidating in Conference USA. The defense as a whole needs stars – whether it's Monds and Albury up front, Williams in the middle or Leonard and Halley on the back end. To be blunt, there's little to like.
So last year wasn't year zero, to quote Tennessee-era Derek Dooley, but year minus-one. This is year zero. Next year, should the program remain static, will be year one. This isn't Auburn; when a program like FIU bottoms out so far, so fast, the process of reclaiming any toehold in the state and in its conference is slow, painful and laborious. Want to be optimistic? FIU goes 2-0 against the FCS foes and wins two games in Conference USA play. Jaded by last season, when FIU was as dreadful as any team of the last 15 years? Then expect another year of misery. Place me in the second group.
Dream season: FIU opens 2-0, slips to 2-2, rebounds to 4-2 and wins one game in the second half to finish 5-7.
Nightmare season: Bethune Cookman wins by a touchdown, Wagner by a field goal and the rest by 21 or more points.
Who's No. 126? This program's coach has never suffered a losing season as a head coach.
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