The FIU Panthers are still learning to win under head coach Ron Turner, who is entering his third season at the helm. That’s not exactly an inspiring thought. The Panthers won just one game (1-11), a one-point victory (24-23) over Southern Miss in his first season, and dropped four of the last five games to finish 4-8 in 2014.
It’s not until an examination of his last collegiate stop, with Illinois, can fans in South Florida get excited about the upcoming season. Turner was 0-11 in his first season with the Illini, and posted a 3-8 record in his second of eight years in Champaign. There, too, the Illinois program was still learning how to win entering this third campaign.
But that’s when things began to click. Turner’s Illini team won eight games in that third season, including a bowl victory. Two years later, Illinois won the Big Ten (10-2, 7-1) and played in the Sugar Bowl.
So don’t write off the Panthers just yet. Four of their eight losses last season were by a field goal or less, which leads us to the five reasons why FIU goes bowling in 2015.
1. Turner’s program
As discussed, in his previous collegiate stint with Illinois, it took until the third season before his program began to take shape.
“We’re making good progress, and I’m excited about where we are,” said Turner. “Each year we’ve taken strides and I think we can take some big strides this year. I think we’re ready to take the next step.”
Defense wins championships. And although I’m not ready to make that bold leap just yet, defense will carry the Panthers again this season. Other than the safety position, the Panthers defense – which finished 35th in the nation last season and tied for fifth in takeaways (33) – has very few question marks.
Denzel Perine and Michael Wafefield lead up front with Davison Colimon, Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint looking to do damage at linebacker.
FIU and Pitt traded defensive coordinators in the offseason. Matt House takes over the FIU defense for the departed Josh Conklin. Pitt’s defense, under House, was very similar to that of FIU. So the change shouldn’t be a major one.
3. Experience at QB
Alex McGough returns for his sophomore season after throwing for 1,680 yards (138-for-274) and 14 touchdowns (10 ints) as a freshman.
The offense was dealt an early blow when top lineman Jordan Budwig was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. FIU will have three newcomers in the offensive line this season to protect McGough and open holes for the running game.
Running back Napoleon Maxwell will also miss the 2015 campaign with a knee injury. But Alex Gardner and Anthon Samuel return after suffering injuries last season. The two combined for 1,142 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 2014.
4. Manageable schedule
Outside of an early road game at Louisiana Tech and season-ending games at Marshall and with Western Kentucky, the remaining nine are winnable; of course, some more than others.
FIU opens the season with road games at UCF and Indiana. A split of those would be considered a good start towards bowl eligibility. The home opener is with North Carolina Central, which should be a layup.
Road games at UMass, Middle Tennesse and FAU, along with home games against UTEP, Old Dominion, and UNC-Charlotte provide a schedule that could produce enough victories for Panthers fans to forget about Turner years 1 and 2.
5. They are due
They’re just due. The Panthers haven’t been bowling since back-to-back seasons (2010-11), which by the way are the only two winning seasons in the program’s 13-year history.