FIU Golden Panthers Looking for Bowl Eligibility in 2009

David HedlindAnalyst IIJune 29, 2009

When Mario Cristobal took over Florida International in 2007, he took one small baby step and they won one game.

To most, one game isn't a lot, but to a program that has only been in existence since 2002 and at the FBS level for four years and a first-year head coach, one win was a good step in the right direction.

The second year under Cristobal, that small step turned into a leap forward as one win turned into five. The offense, which ranked 118th in the nation, turned into 96th. The defense went from 105th to 71st.

FIU is no longer one of the teams the Sun Belt opponents look at as an easy win but rather a team that can win, as they also had a couple near-miss losses.

As for the prospects of the 2009 season, a bowl might not be out of the question, but it isn't any sort of sure thing, either.



While the offense finished last in the Sun Belt last season, they also return the second most starters in the conference.

The passing game is the strength. Starting quarterback Paul McCall and his six leading receivers from 2008 are all back along with the entire starting offensive line.

McCall threw for over 2,300 yards and 15 touchdowns but had nine interceptions and only completed 52.5 percent of his passes.

His leading receiver is T.Y. Hilton. His yardage total was over 1,000 and he pulled in seven touchdowns to lead the team. Hilton also serves as a return man and ran back both a punt and kickoff for touchdown last season.

He should again be the main target, but McCall will have plenty of options.

The line is now all seniors an juniors. The experience they have acquired will hopefully translate in to on-field success. Any one of the players here could garner all conference honors by season's end.

The lone dark spot could be the running game. I actually have optimism because, well, I think it probably couldn’t get much worse than it was in 2008. The running game finished at 107th in the nation and last in the conference.

The leading rusher from a year ago is gone but he only had less than 500 yards and six touchdowns. The second leading rusher is actually gone too.

Sophomore Darriet Perry would appear to be the leading candidate to take over the running duties. Perry was a two-star recruit coming out of high school.

He had offers from a number of Sun Belt schools, along with Central Michigan and Illinois. Look for Perry to become a playmaker for FIU and in the Sun Belt.



Under Cristobal and defensive coordinator Phillip Galiano, the defense has been the part of the team that has taken huge bounds.

I question if the defense will improve much more over the next season with six returning starters spread out throughout the different levels of the defense.

Only one starter returns along the line, which makes this my biggest question mark. Only end Armond Willis is back with significant starts. I should mention that at least eight players along the line have some starting experience and playing time.

At the second level, Scott Bryant could very well be an all-conference selection. He led FIU with 89 tackles last season and seven tackles for loss.

Coming out of the spring, redshirt freshman Winston Fraser may have earned a starting spot, or at least significant playing time.

Leading the backs is Anthony Gaitor who led the team in interceptions with five. He took two of those back for scores.

The defensive backs are all over the place in terms of experience. Free safety Ashlyn Parker was Sun Belt honorable mention in 2007.

In 2008, he started the season but was injured in game one and received a redshirt for the season. He is healthy and back for 2009.

Jeremiah Weatherspoon played in all 11 games in 2005 as a freshman and started all 12 in 2006. For some reason, I can't find it, he missed all of 2007 and received a redshirt. He came back in 2008 and started almost the whole season.

With these three back, along with a senior coming in at the other corner, either Dezeriah Johnson or Peter Riley, the secondary could easily be one of the best in the conference.



The schedule is not friendly to start the season, as they open up with two road games with teams that may very well be candidates to win their respective conferences in Alabama and Rutgers.

It doesn’t get much better towards the end, as they have to travel to Florida before closing with Sun Belt contender FAU.

The middle part, however, provides enough games that could leave FIU with the six wins they need to improve upon last season and become bowl eligible.