The return of Butch Davis to South Florida brought renewed enthusiasm around an FIU program that seemed to lose its way after Mario Cristobal was dismissed in 2012.
However, few could have predicted just how well 2017 would be for FIU.
Eight wins, a bowl appearance and the top ranked recruiting class in Conference USA later, Davis has the Panther program among the G5 elite in the state of Florida.
Offensively FIU was very reliant on the play of Alex McGough in key situations to keep them in games.
That statement doesn’t mean that the rest of the offense didn’t perform well. However, the numbers show that the Panthers were incredibly efficient in two key areas -- passing downs and third downs.
It will either be James Morgan or Christian Alexander starting versus Indiana week one.
Morgan transferred from Bowling Green in the off-season after an inconsistent career as a Falcon. The former four-star recruit has all of the physical traits needed to excel at the position.
Alexander is another player looking to reach his full potential.
He was in a three-way battle with McGough and quarterback-turned-receiver Maurice Alexander last season but ended up as the number three QB. He brings a dual-threat dynamic to the position that Morgan as a pocket passer doesn’t.
The run game is in great shape with veteran backs Napoleon Maxwell, Shawndarrius Phillips and Anthony Jones.
All three have been productive during their Panther careers. Look for a running back rotation that has the potential to be the deepest group Davis has had since his late 90’s Hurricane teams.
The Panthers return five receivers who saw significant playing time last season, plus former quarterback Maurice Alexander and University of Florida transfer C.J. Worton.
Tony Gaiter IV and speedster Austin Maloney are the most veteran of the group.
Look for sophomores Bryce Singleton and Shermar Thornton to contribute.
Junior Darrius Scott is the team’s most efficient returning receiver. Scott’s 70 percent catch rate and 66 percent success rate make him a great candidate to work inside as a slot receiver.
The two X-Factor’s are Worton and Alexander.
Worton battled injuries during his time as a Gator, but had an excellent off-season and was awarded a scholarship by Davis at the end of Spring. Alexander was a decorated high school QB, but has all the tools to be a valuable asset at the receiver position.
The tight end spot accounted for the highest catch rate last year at 77 percent.
Zach Armour returns after being a reserve last season. However, a trio of talented freshmen have a chance to make an impact. Sterling Palmer, Ivan Thomas and David O’Meara are all giant targets.
Each is at least 6-4 and 230 pounds and run sub 4.7 40-yard-dash times.
The offensive line is a veteran group eager to prove that Alex McGough wasn’t the sole reason for the offense’s success.
Five members of the line started at least 10 games last season, plus the addition of four-star tackles D’Antne Demery and Lynell Hudson Jr. Jordan Budwig when healthy is one of the top guards in the conference.
The unit had its shares of highs and lows in its first year under former Utah State head man Brent Guy.
The defensive line was one of the best units in the conference.
However, the secondary was among the bottom third in FBS football, going by standard and advanced metrics. A couple of position changes and transfers coming into 2018 give reason for renewed optimism on the defensive side of the football.
The defensive line had a chance to be the best in C-USA before the additions of four-star JUCO DT’s Teair Tait and Tayland Humphrey. DT Anthony Johnson is one of the top interior defensive linemen in college football.
Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Wood and Kansas State transfer Josh Little will be factors coming off the ends. Overall opposing offenses will be looking at a group that can rotate nine players on the D-line.
The linebacking core lost over 200 tackles last season but could possibly be better in 2018.
Fermin Silva makes the move from DE to hybrid OLB/DE and the move will help improve a linebacking group that was well below average in LB havoc last season. Silva led the team in sacks for the second straight year and this season should be no different.
Sage Lewis makes the move inside to MIKE linebacker and has all of the makings to be excellent at the position.
The wildcard is graduate transfer Edwin Freeman. He transferred late in the off-season and is an athletic freak of nature. The former Texas Longhorn is 6-1, 255 pounds and runs a 4.5 40-yard-dash. If he can stay healthy, he has the chance to really solidify the linebacking group.
The secondary has to be better in 2018.
The return of arguably its top corner in Isaiah Brown from injury should help.
Teams looked to pass the ball against FIU on second downs at a high rate and were successful as the Panthers were 126th in second down S&P.
In layman’s terms, the defense wasn’t forcing enough third downs. Sophomore Richard Dames showed great potential last season as a freshman.
Dorian Hall and Daniel Jackson should contend for starting positions at the safety spots.
My X-Factor of the group is receiver-turned-corner Stantley Thomas-Oliver III. He made all-conference freshman team as a wideout in 2016, but virtually disappeared in 2017. He has all of the physical gifts to be a great cornerback.
The kicking duo of Stone Wilson and Jose Borregales will help this team.
As a true freshman, Borregales hit 83 percent of kicks and didn’t miss inside of 40 yards. He’ll only continue to get better as one of the best young kickers in FBS.
Wilson did a great job of turning field position around, as he landed 22 punts inside of the 20 yard line.
Both will help this team tremendously and if the Panthers can find a dynamic returner, this unit will be right there with the defensive line as the best on the team.