After three initial victories under interim head coach Ron Cooper, the FIU Panthers have dropped their last two. But there’s still some very interesting football left to play as the Panthers head into the homestretch of the tumultuous 2016 season.
Here are five reasons to keep a watchful eye on FIU over its final three games:
1. New attitude under interim head coach Ron Cooper – The Panthers dropped a heartbreaker at home to Middle Tennessee last Saturday, but it emphasized the fight and will to win in this team that just wasn’t there at the beginning of the season. FIU came out on the short end of a 42-35 score but they rallied under Cooper from a 21-0 deficit to tie the game twice in the fourth quarter at 28 and 35 before a pick-six made the difference.
“It was a heck of a ball game,” Cooper said in his postgame press conference. “I told the team that I’ve never been more proud of a team. We lost as a team but I’m proud of how they bounced back.”
It was a team that earlier in the season would have folded. But Cooper has changed the culture.
“Our theme for our team is just don’t flinch,” explained Panthers quarterback Alex McGough. “Up or down, just play ball. Nobody got distracted. We messed up those early drives, but we stayed in there and played ball.”
2. Still a chance to become bowl eligible – Though the possibility isn’t great, the Panthers could still become bowl eligible by winning their final three games. A 0-4 start under former head coach Ron Turner put the Panthers in a huge hole in which they have feverishly attempted to dig out of. In order to be considered for a bowl game, FIU has to win at Western Kentucky on Saturday and then beat Marshall at home and Old Dominion on the road in succession. It’s a task that would have been impossible at the beginning of the season, but seems possible now albeit unlikely.
3. Panthers will factor in C-USA West race – There is still an outside chance that FIU could claim the West Division title. The Panthers have the games in front of them to get it done. Though falling to 3-2 in league play after Saturday’s loss to Middle Tennessee State, the Panthers will face one-loss (in conference) teams in Western Kentucky and Old Dominion. Even if they don’t win the division, the Panthers will certainly have a lot to do with who does.
4. The Panthers are playing an exciting brand of football – Averaging 31 points in five games since Cooper took over as interim coach, the Panthers have certainly turned things around from an 0-4 start where they averaged just 13.5 points per game under Turner. The Panthers racked up 517 yards of total offense on Saturday, the ninth-most in school history for a single game. Their 84 offensive plays were 10th-most in the program’s history.
5. QB Alex McGough is playing at the top of his game – McGough’s resurgence has paralleled the Panthers’ sudden rise under Cooper. In his last three games, the junior has thrown for 315, 281 and 307 yards, respectively — his top three performances of the season. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes this year, 11 of those in the last four games; including three in each of the last two outings. He’s fun to watch and so are the Panthers.