As Butch Davis approached the podium for his postgame press conference following last season’s 24-17 win over Old Dominion, he turned to a member of the press contingency who was looking down at their phone and asked if they were okay.
The media member jokingly replied, “Yeah, bit of a boring game.”
Davis’ response, “You must not like wins; a whole lot goes into winning a football game.”
The foreshadowing, while certainly unintentional on Davis’ part, is all the more apparent one week shy of a year after that statement.
While Friday’s 19-10 loss to FCS Jacksonville State may feel like a low point for the FIU program, the fact of the matter is the Panthers have been a far cry away from the team that had a nine-win 2018 season for a while now.
FIU’s 30-24 victory over an underwhelming 6-5 UM team last year placed FIU squarely in the South Florida college football spotlight. It also disguised that the Panthers had been trending in the wrong direction for the majority of that season.
The last 12 times that the Panthers have taken the field dating back to last season, they have five wins and seven losses, with victories coming against teams whose combined record last year was 16-46. Three of last season’s triumphs came against one-win teams (UMass, ODU and UTEP).
While strength of schedule is a variable outside of FIU’s control, how the team performs against worthy competition is an indicator of whether or not the program is ready to take the next step. The Panthers have had their chances but have failed at each attempt.
2019’s season-opener against a formidable Tulane team saw FIU allow 350 rushing yards in a 28-point loss. Last year’s Shula Bowl saw Florida Atlantic outclass the Panthers in every facet of the game. Following the Miami win, FIU couldn’t quite get the job done against Marshall and Arkansas State.
When Davis took over the program at the end of 2016, there was hope that his decades-long track record as a recruiter would provide an increase in the talent level on the field. It’s undeniable that he’s done so, boasting top-tier recruiting classes in Conference USA each year and the victory over the Hurricanes has only helped in those efforts. He, along with offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky have sent back-to-back quarterbacks to the NFL, in addition to last year’s team having two NFL players on defense (Teair Tart, Stantley Thomas-Oliver) and would-be third in Isiah Brown, had he not chosen to retire during training camp.
That’s what made last season’s 6-7 record a massive disappointment — and made the win over Miami exhilarating. 30-24 saw the Panthers play up to their potential (and to their level of competition) for the first time since 2017’s victory over an eight-win Marshall team.
This year’s 0-3 start shouldn’t be a referendum on the past four seasons of FIU football — but it should spotlight the past year of troubling signs. Davis’ team were down 24 players due to COVID or injury entering the Jacksonville State game, including six starters (JJ Holloman, D’Antne Demery, Sterling Palmer, Shane McGough, Alexy Jean-Baptiste, Andrew Tarver).
Few teams, if any, could overcome those circumstances in a normal season, let alone one that’s forced programs across the country to use their head coach as a quarterback during game prep (Florida Atlantic) and rotate coaches in and out during practices for fear of COVID (Marshall).
However, FIU’s struggles aren’t just a product of the abnormal college football season in history — they’ve been brewing for a while now. A look at the road ahead may see things getting worse before they take an upward turn. Top-25 Marshall comes to Riccardo Silva Stadium in six days, followed by a road game at an improved UTEP team (FIU hasn’t won on the road in 708 days) followed by a Shula Bowl contest against FAU — a team that former Owls’ head coach Lane Kiffin made sure to remind reporters following last year’s win that the Panthers haven’t beaten since 2016.
It’s been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Unfortunately, Davis is fighting the impression of a program that went 49-146 before his arrival. It’ll take a few more wins to erase the memories of years prior for FIU fans.