Butch Davis and his FIU Panthers are heading to their third bowl game in as many seasons since his tenure as head coach began at the end of 2016.
After coming into the season with conference title expectations and starting the season 0-2, the Panthers became bowl-eligible in thrilling fashion, upsetting crosstown rival Miami in their penultimate game of the regular season.
As they prepare to face Arkansas State in the Camellia Bowl, let’s take a look at the regular season that was in Miami.
Offensive Player of the Year: Anthony Jones & James Morgan
This goes down as a split award for me because I can make the argument that without either player for every snap that they played, FIU would be in real danger of not getting to six wins.
Yes, James’ numbers are down from a year ago. However, he only turned the ball over five times in his 11 games, the lowest by a full-time starting Panthers’ quarterback since Jake Medlock in 2012.
Much gets made of Jones’ being injured in a senseless shooting last season, but his play on the field doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.
In his FIU career, when he’s been healthy, he’s been one of the more productive players in C-USA. His 925 all-purpose yards lead the team.
Defensive Player of the Year: The Secondary
Last year, I gave the FIU offensive line recognition as my OPOY.
This year, a shared award is again in order as the entire FIU secondary has been one of the best in the nation.
Their finest performance of the year was the win against Miami.
While the numbers say that the Canes’ passing game had 249 yards against them, the Panthers’ defensive backfield only allowed 78 yards through three quarters.
The rotation of Stantley Thomas-Oliver, Ike Brown, Josh Turner, Rishard and Richard Dames, Dorian Hall and Olin Cushion III were the primary players that accounted for the sixth-ranked pass defense in FBS football.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Sione Finau
The FIU offensive line took half of the season to gel, with multiple players getting adjusted to new roles due to the graduation of four key members last season.
One of the biggest question marks was who would fill out the rotation of linemen, as FIU prefers to use 8-9 OL per contest.
True freshman Sione Finau didn’t see his first action until the fifth game of the year against UMass but solidified himself as one of the best young offensive linemen in Conference USA.
He was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team for 2019.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Alexy Jean-Baptiste
It may be somewhat unfair to call Jean-Baptiste a rookie, as he spent three years at Arkansas before transferring to FIU in the offseason.
However, he only had 12 collegiate snaps to his name prior to making his Panther debut against Louisiana Tech.
In nine contests, he led the team with 4.5 sacks and was the most consistent pass-rusher on the defensive line.
With ends Kevin Oliver and Noah Curtis returning, along with transfer Chris Whittaker, Jean-Baptiste’s talent will help give FIU an excellent pass-rush unit in 2020.
Best Team Performance: Win over Miami
FIU’s upset win of Miami has the potential to be a program-changing victory.
Unfortunately, for this season, it serves as both an accomplishment and a cruel reminder of what this season could have been if the Panthers played to their potential in conference losses to La Tech, MTSU and Marshall.
Unsung Hero Performance: Tevin Jones against UTEP/O-Line against ODU
Reserve linebacker Tevin Jones spent two seasons in the shadows of standouts Sage Lewis, Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams. When Lewis was forced to miss the UTEP game with a hamstring injury, Jones stepped up in his absence recording a game-high nine tackles, helping FIU secure a 32-17 victory over the Miners.
In the second half of the Old Dominion game, the FIU offensive line who were already missing Shane McGough, lost multiple players to injury which forced players to play out of position, most specifically Shacquille Williams, who played his first snaps of the season (practice or game) at right tackle.
Against an ODU defense that was solid all season despite an anemic offense, FIU closed out their fifth win in the final two quarters by imposing their will over the Monarchs.
Biggest Surprise: Shemar Thornton
Entering the 2019 season, Shemar Thornton had 17 career receptions as a backup receiver. Given an injury to Bryce Singleton that has kept him out for the entirety of the season, Thornton made the most of his opportunity.
The Miami native is second on the team in receiving yards (582) and receptions (48).
His emergence gives FIU a returning player at the position in 2020 to help lead what will be a young and unproven receiving core.
Biggest Disappointment: Run Defense
Throughout the offseason, a need to play with improved technique and fundamentals was a talking point for various FIU coaches and players.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, when faced with an opponent of equal talent, they failed mightily for the most part in 2019.
The defense gave up at least 200 yards to an opponent six times this year, starting with 360 on opening night to Tulane, 471 to Middle Tennessee State and 261 to Florida Atlantic in the Shula Bowl.
It wasn’t an expectation that the defense would automatically perform better overnight. However, the unit has been worse than its 11th place finish in Conference USA last season.
Player to Watch in 2020: Jeremiah Holloman
JJ Holloman will arguably be one of the top-five athletes in Conference USA the second he touches the field in 2020.
Transferring from Georgia during fall training camp, the former four-star recruit brings an elite level talent, who was on his way to being a starter for the Bulldogs before being dismissed after the 2018 season.
His play will be key in bringing along a new starting quarterback for FIU.