Perhaps head coach Ron Turner should take his FIU Panthers on a guided tour of Ocean Bank Field, just to get reacquainted with facility. Some players may have forgotten what it looks like. After playing on the road in four of their first five games to start the 2015 season, the Panthers finally get a meaningful home game.
FIU hosts UTEP at noon Saturday in its Conference USA home opener. It’s the first of seven consecutive conference games. Four of those are at home. That has to be a positive for a 2-3 Panthers squad looking to get back in the conference race following a recent 27-17 loss at Louisiana Tech in their C-USA curtain-raiser.
The Panthers return home every other week throughout the remainder of the season. And that has to bring a collective smile to the globetrotting Panthers who, not even halfway through the season, have already made journeys to Central Florida, Indiana, Louisiana (LA Tech), and Massachusetts.
And with only five home games on the 2015 slate, road trips to (Middle) Tennessee, West Virginia (Marshall) and up the turnpike to Boca Raton (FAU) still remain on the itinerary. But having already assimilated to the rigors of travel, hostile crowds and hotels, the Panthers should be accustomed to and thoroughly prepared for those C-USA road battles.
Perhaps even more so than playing at the friendly confines of Ocean Bank Field where the Panthers are 1-0 this season. But that is yet to be determined.
A 39-14 victory over North Carolina Central is the only gauge we have so far on how FIU can perform on its home turf. It was the program’s 30th triumph at home since kicking off football as a competitive sport in 2002. That’s 30 of the 39 wins over the program’s brief history, quite the lopsided statistic.
But home field hasn’t proven to be an overwhelming advantage in the first two years for the Panthers since joining Conference USA. Splitting those games, the Panthers defeated FAU, 38-10, in last season’s conference home debut after dropping a 27-24 decision to UAB in their initial one the previous year.
So, then how big is home field advantage? Well, on paper the Panthers appear to be a better football team than UTEP, but odds makers have installed FIU as two-touchdown favorites to even their conference and overall records for this season.
That’s even taking into consideration that home hasn’t been as big an advantage for the Panthers as it could have been in recent years. FIU hasn’t won back-to-back home games since opening the 2011 season with victories over North Texas (41-16) and Central Florida (17-10). It was also the last season in which the Panthers posted a winning record at home (4-2).
Home hasn’t been quite so sweet since. FIU went 1-5 at home in 2012 and followed that with home records of 0-6 in 2013 and 3-5 last season.
Still, anyone can tell you that playing at home is preferable and the comfort level alone is worth its weight. A winning season at home just might be the impetus needed to lift the program to its third winning season and third bowl appearance. Time will tell, but with a tough road slate behind them, the Panthers look forward to a much more negotiable string of games from here on out.