Rice football dropped a close game to Florida International in Houston last season. Can they rebound with a win over the Panthers on the road in 2018?
Florida International is coming off one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Panthers tied a school-best eight wins in 2017 under the leadership of new head coach Butch Davis. Davis has now had eight wins in four consecutive seasons.
Once the head man at Miami and later North Carolina, Davis brought a career 64.8 winning percentage to FIU. That average, when applied to an entire season, comes out to roughly to eight wins per year. That was more or less the standard for Davis before he landed at FIU. He has two sub-.500 seasons in his head coaching career.
Eight wins won’t be enough at most Power 5 schools, but FIU welcomes the improvement. The Panthers were 4-1 in one-score games a year ago, including a 17-10 win over Rice in Houston.
The 2018 FIU squad has a lot of similar pieces. Here’s how the Panthers stack up this season.
FIU finished in the middle of the pack in Conference USA in terms of total offense averaging 25.6 points per game. The bulk of their 41 total touchdowns were generated by dual-threat quarterback Alex McGough, who leaves the school No. 2 in all-time passing yardage.
McGough threw for a personal best 2,798 passing yards last season, adding 17 touchdowns through the air and five more on the ground. Additional losses for the Panthers are star wide receiver Thomas Owens and starting running back Alex Gardner. Both players were yardage and touchdown leaders at their respective positions.
Although they have several holes to fill, the bulk of the depth returns in 2018. FIU brings back four receivers who caught 20 or more passes last year led Austin Maloney.
The Panthers are equally equipped on the ground. Napoleon Maxwell and Shawndarrius Phillips combined for 185 carries, 972 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last season. They’ll be able to split the rushing duties behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in college football. The Panthers return every starter up front led by All-CUSA guard Jordan Budwig.
If sophomore quarterback James Morgan, a transfer from Bowling Green, can be effective this unit will be one of the better squads in Conference USA.
The FIU defense doesn’t enter 2018 in as good of a position as the offense. The top four and seven of the top nine leading tacklers are not returning this year, leaving fairly significant questions at every level of the defense.
The biggest unknown lies in the defensive backfield. FIU finished 13th in CUSA against the pass last season, allowing a staggering 65.3 completion percentage. Not a single player who registered an interception for FIU returns and the only meaningful addition is Rutgers grad transfer Kiy Hester at free safety. Hester registered three picks for the Scarlet Knights.
An improved pass rush might be the best recipe for improvement on the back line and that’s something that could be possible this season. An infusion of talent is inbound in the form of Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Wood and 4-star JUCO defensive tackle Tayland Humphrey. The talent was impressive enough that last year’s leader along the defensive line, Fermin Silva has been freed up to play linebacker.
Silva will pair up with returning starter Sage Lewis. Those two finished first and third on the team in quarterback hurries last season and combined for seven tackles for a loss and 12 sacks.