Coming off a program-record nine wins in 2018, FIU’s 2019 schedule strength was widely considered one of the worst in college football.
However, after early injuries at key positions and continued run defense deficiencies, the Panthers finished the year with a disappointing 6-7 record.
Following the postponement of multiple games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what’s left of this year’s slate includes six teams that qualified for bowl games last season. Let’s take a look at this season’s opponents in the descending order of strength.
The Miners are coming off a 1-11 season that saw their lone victory come in the form of a two-point triumph over FCS Houston Baptist.
Head coach Dana Dimel is bringing in a new starting quarterback in Gavin Hardison but has ten starters from last year’s team.
The Miners pushed FIU last season for three quarters in Miami before the Panthers pulled away for a 32-17 victory.
7. Middle Tennessee
FIU has lost four out of the last five contests against MTSU, but last year’s contest in Murfreesboro may have been the most infamous. The Panthers allowed 471 rushing yards — second-most in program history for a single game — in a 50-17 Middle Tennessee rout of FIU.
After taking a 17-14 lead into halftime, a torrential downpour descended over Murfreesboro’s Floyd Stadium, spurring Blue Raiders quarterback Asher O’Hara to a 159-yard, two-touchdown performance. O’Hara returns in 2020 and is one of the most dynamic players in college football.
6. Louisiana Tech
Skip Holtz’ Bulldogs may have the highest boom or bust potential of any team in the conference. They return a litany of talent on the offensive side of the ball and still have playmakers on defense, despite losing two defensive backs to the NFL.
If either Aaron Allen or Luke Anthony can adequately replace three-year starter J’Mar Smith, Tech will again be a player in the West division. Last year’s meeting was marred by a controversial no-touchdown call against the Panthers in the first half, followed by a D’Antne Demery ejection in the final quarter, en route to a 43-31 Bulldog victory.
Arguably FIU’s biggest rival outside of FAU, the last two contests against the Thundering Herd have been decided by a combined six points. 2018’s 28-25 Marshall upset victory cost the Panthers a spot in the C-USA title game, while last year’s 30-27 OT loss to the Herd affected FIU’s bowl standings.
The key to a victory will be containing C-USA’s top running back, Marshall’s Brenden Knox. Expect Knox to be a focal point of the offense, especially with the Herd turning to redshirt freshman Grant Wells at quarterback.
In a welcome relief to Panther fans, Benny Lemay isn’t lining up in the 49ers’ backfield anymore. FIU gave up a combined 640 total yards to Lemay over the last three contests against Charlotte. However, all three have been FIU victories, including last year’s 48-23 victory in Miami. The Niners return the top QB-WR duo in Chris Reynolds and Carol City native Victor Tucker, along with two-time 1,000-yard rusher Tre’ Harbison, who transferred to Charlotte from Northern Illinois last year.
3. Florida Atlantic
First-year Owls’ head coach Willie Taggart has to replace 14 starters from last season’s C-USA championship team — none more notable than quarterback Chris Robison and linebacker Akileis Leroy — both of whom were expected to be among the top players in the league.
FAU still has to be taken seriously by FIU and the rest of the league because of their talent returning at running back. Malcolm Davidson’s 153-yard, three-touchdown performance in last year’s 37-7 FAU victory was arguably the Panthers’ most abysmal outing of last year against the run. Joining him are B.J. Emmons, Larry Mccammon III and James Charles.
The Flames are an intriguing opponent. Here’s the fact of the matter — Turner Gill did an excellent job building the program — and Hugh Freeze is capable of taking them to the next level. Auburn transfer Malik Willis will be tasked with replacing Stephen Calvert and expect a steady dose of running back Joshua Mack, who rushed for almost 800 yards as a true freshman. The team did lose cornerbacks Kei’Trel Clark and Tayvion Land to transfer in the offseason, both of whom were expected to see significant playing time in 2020.
1. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers are a favorite to win C-USA’s East division this season, in large part due to their stifling defense. FIU’s offense couldn’t get out of first gear in last season’s 20-14 loss to WKU at Riccardo Silva Stadium.
Lead by 2020’s preseason pick as C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in DeAngelo Malone, FIU was held to just 217 yards of total offense. The Tops’ primary challenge will be replacing quarterback Ty Storey. Grad transfer Tyrrell Pigrome (who played with current FIU quarterback Max Bortenschlager at Maryland) is expected to lead the offense, along with 1,000-yard rusher Gaej Walker.