Despite having one of the better defenses in college football, FIU still struggled down the stretch and stumbled to yet another bowl-less season.
Most college football fans would classify a 4-8 season as a failure, but that was not true this year for FIU. The Golden Panthers made drastic improvements from their one win season last year, turning a complete 180 and adding three more wins to their 2013 total in coach Ron Turner's second year.
FIU had many players make the All-Conference USA list. Defensively, cornerback Richard Leonard made the first team both as a corner back and a punt returner, and defensive end Michael Wakefield made All-Conference USA second team, accounting for eight sacks and 38 tackles.
On the offensive end, tight end Jonnu Smith also made the first team, totaling 61 receptions for 710 yards and eight touchdowns, all three of which were best in the nation for a tight end.
Senior offensive lineman Donald Senat (12 starts) and defensive end Denzell Perine (7 sacks), and linebacker Anthony Wint (48 tackles) all made honorable mention. Leonard also added an honorable mention in kick returning to give him a total of three All-Conference awards.
FIU had the 38th best defense in the nation, bolstered by a 35th-ranked passing defense. They also finished 11th nationally and 2nd in Conference USA behind Louisiana Tech when it came to turnover margin.
Leonard led the Panther defense with five interceptions, tying the school record and leading the conference. FIU also had help from Perine and fellow junior defensive end Michael Wakefield who combined for a total of 15 sacks on the season, third most by a duo in C-USA. Leonard also led Conference USA in yards per punt return (23.8).
The problem in 2014 for FIU was the offense - the one that ranked dead last nationally. The problems started under center, as the team struggled trying to find a starting quarterback at the beginning of the season, wondering if they should start the experienced E.J. Hilliard or go with the freshman Alex McGough. They went with McGough, who had a pedestrian 1,680 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Lucky for him, Jonnu Smith and his team-leading numbers will be coming back next season. The run game was mediocre to say the least; the Panthers used a plethora of backs, but could not seem to find the one to lead them.
For the first eight games, FIU thought their rushing attack would be headed up by Alex Gardner, but he didn't start again after the Marshall game. Then they passed the baton to junior transfer Anthon Samuel, who ran for 582 yards to match Gardner, plus five scores.
FIU has hope for the future despite a rough season, with Smith and Leonard touted as potential All-Americans. In fact, Smith was mentioned by several websites as a 2015 mid-season All-American. Luckily for FIU, both players are expected to return next year, adding to the possibility of FIU's rise up Conference USA in 2015.
Team Player of the year:
Offense: Jonnu Smith (So.)- The fact that he was able to lead the nation's tight ends in all three major receiving categories is very impressive, especially playing for a team that does not throw well. He was a very physical presence on the field and accounted for nine of FIU's 27 touchdowns on the season.
Defense/ Special teams: Richard Leonard (Jr.)- Leonard was the heart and soul of the Panthers' impressive defense. Running all around the field making tackles and breaking up passes, he had three total touchdowns combined from special teams and defense. Leonard was in the top of most categories as a returner and cornerback in C-USA.