Florida International coach Mario Cristobal was kind enough to take a moment this Sunday morning to speak with me about the football program's current breakthrough. All quotes were obtained first-hand.
Q: Coming off the program's first Sun Belt title in 2010, you fell short last year due to what seemed like a resurgence among conference opponents. How will you get back to a championship-like caliber of play?
A: Every single year everybody is in it until like Week 10 or 11. We have to play great defense because there are a lot of high-powered, top-25 offenses...we're looking for complete games.
Q: What's the team atmosphere like so far in summer practice?
A: There's a tremendous buzz around here. Recruiting has really taken off to a high level, we've got a lot of pride and we believe in ourselves. There's something special going on here.
Q: What're your thoughts on yesterday's scrimmage? Did anyone stand out?
A: It was very physical on both sides of the ball. The defense did a great job on third down and had an edge. We had some great battles.
Q: Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette are both looking strong this year. Both are on the schedule, and both games could end up deciding the conference winner. What will your team have to do to come out on top?
How will the Golden Panthers fare in 2012?
A: Both teams have always been great. Arkansas State has arguably the best player in the conference with [quarterback] Ryan Aplin. Lafayette's quarterback is really tough to handle as a dual-threat guy. Both are gonna be real good, but they both have a short week coming to us. They can beat anybody, and that's how we feel about everybody in the conference.
Q: In my Sun Belt preview, I have FIU finishing 10-2 and unbeaten in the conference. However, wins over tough Central Florida and Louisville teams (who you beat in 2011) are not out of the question. Is an undefeated record something you've thought about?
A: We try to be 1-0 every week. We have a special team, and we're ready to play ball.
Q: T.Y. Hilton, arguably the best offensive player in FIU history, is gone. How do you replace him?
A: Collectively. With the play of the offensive line, quarterback, receivers, everybody. He's one of the most dynamic players in history and it's hard, but the moment is here and everybody is ready to step up. We have units that are capable of getting the job done.
Q: The defense did a pretty nice job last season, holding opponents to under 20 points per game and ranking 31st overall in yards allowed. You have much of the same unit back, including team leader in tackles Winston Frazier. How has the defense looked so far this offseason and how big of a role will it play in the success of FIU in 2012?
A: When we first got here the defense was the biggest hole. Now we're looking at a front seven that is a top-30 and a secondary that will help us become a top scoring defense.
Q: When you took over the program, FIU had finished 0-12 the year before. It was considered the toughest job in the nation, but you've turned it into a consistent conference title contender in just a few short years. How were you able to do it?
A: On the surface, [the program] was awful. But it was a united effort by everybody that turned things around. We truly believed it could be done. There were some painful moments, but you have to get your butts kicked before you can take Texas A&M to the wire and get your victories. It's been a process from the beginning, but it's always been about the team—trainers, walk-ons, staff members, everybody.
To check out the feature story on coach Cristobal, click here.