As the calendar turns to a new year, Butch Davis and his FIU Panthers will look drastically different than the team that took the field in 2019.
That will provide its own set of questions as to who will to replace the productivity of an outgoing senior class that was the most successful in program history.
However, before that puzzle is solved, here are five resolutions that the Panthers can establish immediately, in their efforts to prevent back-to-back losing seasons.
Defend the run: FIU has been one of the worst teams in FBS football against the run for two consecutive seasons. In 2018, the Panthers finished 92th out of 129 teams, allowing an average of 192.2 yards per game.
Following offseason vows to make strides in this department, they dropped 14 spots to 106th, allowing 198.6 per contest. In the last 26 games, FIU has allowed at least 200 rushing yards 10 times.
The most damning of these games was undoubtedly last season's loss to Middle Tennessee - and not just because of the 471 rushing yards allowed.
Blue Raiders’ backs Jayy McDonald and Terelle West rushed for a combined 127 yards in the seven games prior to facing FIU.
The duo gained 268 against the Panthers - then rushed for just 99 yards total in MTSU's final four games.
Establish the running back rotation: Dating back to Davis’ days with the Miami Hurricanes, his teams have been known for having excellent running back depth. In his 13 seasons as a head coach, only four times has a running back rushed for over 1,000 yards (none in his last seven seasons).
In the composite rankings era (2009-current), four of FIU’s top-45 recruits all-time are running backs projected to be on the 2020 roster (Lexington Joseph, Kejon Owens, Demarcus Townsend, Shaun Peterson Jr.). Including Arkansas transfer Maleek Williams rises that number to five, and there’s still the talented D’Vonte Price, who battled injuries in the early part of 2019.
The FIU offense under coordinator Rich Skrosky is at its best when they’re able to stay on schedule during drives and they can rotate three backs during games. See 2017’s success with Alex Gardner, Anthony Jones and Shawndarrius Phillips, or 2018 with Jones, Phillips, Price and/or Napoleon Maxwell.
Noah Curtis: The 6-5, 260-pound senior-to-be is undeniably one of the most gifted defensive ends in Conference USA.
He was named to C-USA’s honorable mention team in 2018 and garnered various preseason accolades, including being listed as a top-30 player in the entire conference by College Football News.
However, last season saw a dip in his statistical numbers from 2018, partly due to the emergence of Alexy Jean-Baptiste and Chris Whittaker.
Curtis is a high-motor player who has consistently finds his way to the ball.
If he can couple those traits with being more of a presence in the opposing team’s backfield (career 5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks), it will go a long way to giving FIU one of the better defensive line units in the conference.
Tight Ends: Along with Davis’ reputation for churning out talented running backs, he’s also known for developing and utilizing tight ends. Pharoah McKever and Sterling Palmer were a major part of the Panther passing game in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
In 2019, Palmer seemed to be a forgotten man at times.
After a stellar true freshman season that saw Palmer start 10 games, he didn’t get his first of four starts until the ninth game of the season this year, sharing time Kamareon Williams and David O’Meara.
The position as a whole saw a dip in receiving production, going from 34 catches in 2018, to 26 in last season and five of those came in the final contest of the year.
Joining the group next season will be former three-star prospect Joe Hocker, who redshirted in 2019.
The 6-5, 250-pound Cincinnati native will provide another sizable and athletic body at the position.
Playing with discipline: While the Panthers were a more penalized team in 2019 compared to last season, that’s somewhat of a moot point in the grand scheme of things.
“There’s got to be a whole hell of a lot of changes and things that we’re going to do significantly different, with a major one being the discipline with which we play,” said Davis following the Camellia Bowl, when I asked him what needs to change heading into 2020.
The sobering reality is that FIU’s 6-7 record was a disappointment not only because of the preseason expectations but that there’s no denying the level of talent on the field didn’t reflect in the win-loss column.