(Part 13 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)
Returning to the sidelines after a six-year absence, Butch Davis has taken on the task of leading the FIU Panthers to prominence.
FIU has managed only two winning seasons since its inaugural campaign in 2002 — both under Mario Cristobal in 2010 and 2011.
Davis has held head coaching positions at North Carolina (2007-10) and Miami (1995-2000) at the college level, in addition to a stint with the NFL's Cleveland Browns (2001-04).
Besides bringing in Davis, the school has made numerous upgrades to its stadium, weight training and practice facilities.
FIU (4-8, 4-4) struggled offensively last season, ranking rock bottom in Conference USA in scoring (24 points per game), 11th in rushing (148.6 yards per game), seventh in passing (226.7 ypg) and ninth in total offense (375.3 ypg), along with a miserable negative-9 turnover margin.
Quarterback Alex McGough, who enters his fourth season as a starter, is among six returning regulars on offense. As a junior, McGough completed 167-of-286 passes for 1,891 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 picks.
Another four-year starter, Alex Gardner (181 carries, 930 yards, 6 TDs; 30 receptions, 191), heads the rushing attack. Junior Anthony Jones (116-562-4) provides solid depth at running back.
Senior Thomas Owens (47 receptions, 652 yards, 7 TDs) and sophomore Stanley Thomas-Oliver III (35-485-1) spearhead the receiving corps.
H-back A.J. Sattinger, a first-team All-Sun Belt Conference honoree for Coastal Carolina, has joined the Panthers as a graduate transfer.
An inexperienced offensive line is a concern. Kai Absheer moved from left guard to left tackle in the spring, while fellow junior Daquane Wilkie returns at right tackle. The remaining three spots are unsettled.
With nine starters back, the Panthers are counting on the defense to make a leap forward after ranking eighth in C-USA in scoring (34.8 ppg), eighth in rushing (198.8 ypg), sixth in passing (235.8 ypg) and ninth in total yards (434.6 ypg).
Senior linebackers Treyvon Williams (190 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks) and Anthony Wint (108 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 forced fumbles) ranked 1-2 on the team in tackles.
Three members of the front four return, including junior end Fermin Silva (42 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 5 sacks), senior end Newton Salisbury (31 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack) and junior tackle Jermaine Sheriff (28 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks).
The entire secondary remains intact with junior Emmanuel Lubin (28 tackles, 1 interception) and sophomore Isaiah Brown (20 tackles, 3 INTs) at the corners, and seniors Niko Gonzalez (55 tackles, 1 INT in 9 games) and Xavier Hines (45 tackles) at the safeties.
Junior Stone Wilson (61 punts, 37.6-yard average) returns, with redshirt freshman Jose Borregales taking on the place kicking duties.
Gardner returned 19 kickoffs for a 22.4-yard average, followed by Jones with 17 for 19.4. Owens, meanwhile, ran back 11 punts at a 12.5 clip.
FIU 2017 SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 31 at UCF 5 p.m.
Sept. 9 Alcorn State TBA
Sept. 16 at Indiana 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 at Rice* 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 30 Charlotte* 6 p.m.
Oct. 7 at Middle Tennessee* 2 p.m.
Oct. 14 Tulane 6 p.m.
Oct. 28 at Marshall* 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 UTSA* 6 p.m.
Nov. 11 Old Dominion* 6 p.m.
Nov. 18 at Florida Atlantic* 6 p.m.
Nov. 24 (Fri.) WKU* 6 p.m.