2012 Florida International Football: When Cliches Don't Apply

Mario Cristobal turned a pile of ashes into a program strong enough to keep him in South Florida when Pittsburgh and Rutgers called this past offseason. Now, following the departure of star receiver T.Y. Hilton, does he have enough talent to make his surprising decision worth it? Signs point to yes. Related: FIU's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

On December 20, 2006, the same day Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh, 36-year-old Miami offensive line coach Mario Cristobal bravely accepted what was considered one of the toughest jobs in the FBS universe; head coach of Florida International. He inherited a team that had not only gone 0-12 in 2006 (and 3-21 versus FBS teams over the three previous seasons), but was known as much for an incredibly ugly brawl with Miami as for the winless record. Terrible AND horribly undisciplined? A blip on the football radar AND a bit of an embarrassment for the school? And with no weight room or meeting rooms? Good luck with that, Coach.

Five years after his hire, Cristobal turned aside advances from not one, but two major conference programs (Pitt and Rutgers) to remain at FIU.

I talk about underdog stories a lot, and for very good reason. I love them. However, it is incredible just how quickly Cristobal has transformed FIU from the ultimate underdog tale to a potential mid-major power. Only time will tell whether Cristobal's decision to stay in Miami is a good one -- just Friday, we discussed the tale of Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill and what happened to him when he stayed in Murfreesboro instead of striking while the iron is hot -- but sometimes there is more to a job than major conference status, and one has to consider it a wonderful thing for mid-major football that Cristobal is still at FIU.

Now all he has to do is keep winning without the program's greatest ever player. Compared to what he inherited five years ago, that doesn't actually seem all that difficult. The Golden Panthers will play in an expanded FIU Stadium this fall, they actually have a weight room (a pretty good one, actually), and they are projected to play at a level similar to that of Miami and Central Florida (and much higher than anybody else in the Sun Belt). To give any sort of generic "things are looking up" platitude right now would be to insult the incredibly non-generic job Cristobal has done.


Related: Check out Florida International's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about FIU, last year's Louisiana-Lafayette (last-second winners of an incredibly exciting bowl game that had no reason to be incredibly exciting):

Yes, it was just Toledo. And yes, it was just the Little Caesars Pizza! Pizza! Bowl. But this was a really, really big deal. In late-2007, Florida International was mired in a rather incredible 23-game losing streak. Just three years later, they came back from a 24-7 deficit against Toledo in the Motor City, scratched ahead, then fell behind one more time. With 50 seconds remaining, they faced a fourth-and-17 from their 41; no worries. One hook-and-ladder and exactly 17 yards later, they were still alive. With four seconds left, kicker Jack Griffin booted a 34-yard field goal through the uprights for perhaps the most meaningful Formerly Known As The Motor City Bowl win ever. […]

[T]o be sure, FIU still has a ways to go when it comes to sustaining the success they built. There are obviously some positive signs here -- their recruiting averages place them in the upper half of the Sun Belt when it comes to their base of talent (being based in Miami, there really isn't an excuse not to be in the upper half of the Sun Belt in this regard), their turnover margin actually suggests they were a tad unlucky when it comes to recovering fumbles last year, and they return a very healthy amount of starters. Because of four-year history, it is relatively certain that Troy will be projected as the stronger team this year, but there's certainly a lot to like about both FIU and the job Mario Cristobal continues to do.

The name of the game for FIU in 2011 was stability; consolidate your 2010 gains and prove your success was not just a blip. They did that. Despite an upset loss to Marshall in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl, they finished with a better record (8-5 versus 7-6) and just about the same F/+ rating. In a roundabout way, however, this was almost disappointing; the Golden Panthers began the season with wins over Louisville and Central Florida, and with the schedule at hand it looked as if they might run the table.

But star receiver T.Y. Hilton was nagged with a hamstring injury, quarterback Wes Carroll injured his ankle, and FIU followed these two breakthrough wins with three losses in five games. They romped through Florida Atlantic, UL-Monroe and Middle Tennessee to finish 8-4 and make their second straight bowl game. For a program that won just 12 of their first 61 games versus FBS competition, there is no disappointment in that.

Offense

I have used this line so much over time that it has almost become my own personal cliche, but it bears repeating (and repeating again): injuries are devastating in the present tense but often positive in the future tense. When T.Y. Hilton tweaked his hamstring in late-September, FIU got an opportunity to figure out life in the post-Hilton era. He is without question FIU's greatest player ever (and a great pro prospect to boot), but he was hampered first by injury, and then by opponents' overcompensation to stop him.

In FIU's first three games, they averaged an impressive 29.6 Adj. Points per game. Hilton was incredible in the win over Louisville -- nine targets, seven catches, 201 yards; but he was at least a bit limited the rest of the season. He caught just three of 10 passes for 30 yards versus Central Florida, four of eight for 62 against Troy, two of seven for 32 against Western Kentucky, four of nine for 76 against UL-Monroe, and three of six for 16 against Middle Tennessee. He still had his moments, but FIU was often forced to look elsewhere to move the ball, and they did so with varying degrees of success. They averaged just 25.3 Adj. Points per game over their middle six games, but powered by both a healthier Hilton and surging running back Kedrick Rhodes, they bounced back to 29.1 for their final three games. (These averages don't seem like much of a difference until you realize that FIU played in six one-possession games last season.) They became far too predictable late, however; they ranked 120th in the country, dead last, in Fourth Quarter S&P+.

Rhodes now becomes the de facto face of the FIU offense. The junior from Ocala gained 328 yards at 6.1 per carry in those final three regular season games. He and senior Jeremiah Harden will attempt to buy time for whichever quarterback replaces Carroll in the starting lineup. Three-star sophomore Jake Medlock appears to have the edge, but redshirt freshman Laranzo Hammonds was explosive enough with his legs that he will possibly see time in a Wildcat aspect.

Even if the Wildcat takes hold more than one would anticipate, FIU is going to probably going to keep doing what they do: run on standard downs, pass on passing downs, run in the red zone, and operate at a relatively slow pace. They will line up an excellent offensive line -- four starters (including second-team all-conference tackle Caylin Hauptmann), and 83 career starts, return from a line that ranked 63rd in Adj. Line Yards and 33rd in Adj. Sack Rate last year -- and they have a large committee of receivers who will attempt to replace Hilton's production. Last year's No. 2-5 receivers are all back (Wayne Times, Jacob Younger, Glenn Coleman and beautifully-named sophomore Dominique Rhymes combined to catch 124 of 185 passes for a healthy 1,404 yards), four-star Ohio State transfer James Louis joins the receiving corps this fall (the Sun Belt really is becoming a lovely landing spot for four- and, in Michael Dyer's case at Arkansas State, five-star transfers), and sophomore defensive back Richard Leonard might evidently be taking snaps on offense as well. Both tight ends must be replaced, but they were targeted only about twice per game, so that is not an incredible loss.

Honestly, for those who believe in such a thing, there is a bit of Ewing Theory potential here in Hilton's departure (especially when it comes to late-game woes), but we won't go that far just yet. Just know that there are quite a few interesting pieces here, and eight as many as eight three- or four-star starters, the ceiling is rather high.

Defense

Hilton's injury not only impacted the offense a bit -- it almost seemed to affect the defense, too. After looking like one of the better mid-major units in the country over the first three games (they allowed 14.3 points and 25.2 adjusted points per game), they regressed in the schedule's midsection. They allowed 36 points to UL-Lafayette, 31 to Duke, 34 to Arkansas State, and 17 to Akron (which, honestly, may have been the worst performance of all). But they rallied, allowing no more than 20 points in any of their final six games. With ten starters returning, it is easy to become quite optimistic about this defense's potential.

It isn't just about the 10 returning starters, however. Almost the entire second string returns as well, and along with the infusion of some three-star talent in the front seven (290-pound Darrian Dyson was almost a four-star recruit, according to Rivals), the Golden Panthers are devastatingly deep. They got better as a given half wore on last year (a sign of solid depth and talent), and they are high-end at both the front (line) and back (secondary).

It starts up front. Ends Greg Hickman and Tourek Williams combined for 24 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and six passes broken up in 2011 as FIU put together a pass rush that ranked 34th in Adj. Sack Rate; they got SOME help from blitzing linebackers (Winston Fraser and Jordan Hunt each had four sacks), but quite a few of their sacks came on standard downs. They were unable to generate much of a pass rush on passing downs, and accordingly they ranked just 101st in Passing Downs Success Rate+. There is certainly room for improvement here. All they have to do is help out the secondary a bit, and any number of athletes will make plays. Senior strong safety Jonathan Cyprien, sophomore free safety Justin Halley and sophomore corner Richard Leonard each intercepted or broke up at least nine passes last year; meanwhile, two other cornerbacks (Jose Cheeseborough and Sam Miller) combined to register eight tackles for loss. Nine of the secondary's top ten players return for a unit that, despite lacking help on passing downs, still ranked 41st in Passing S&P+.

If there is room for growth and improvement, it is on the interior. FIU ranked just 86th in Adj. Line Yards, which suggests that tackle Isame Faciane and company occasionally got pushed around a bit. Fraser and Hunt were tackling machines (154.0 tackles) and playmakers (19 TFL), but it appears that FIU could improve a decent amount simply by making a few more routine plays. The level of experience here, however, is outstanding. The two-deep should feature around ten seniors and six juniors, but with players like Halley and Leonard, there is still a bit of hope for the future as well.

Defining Success

Take a look at FIU's schedule. The Golden Panthers play just two teams projected to rank better than 75th, three better than 87th (and two at home). If they are undefeated following Louisville's visit on September 22, they might not lose. Therefore we will be aggressive and say that, with this depth on both sides of the ball, the success-or-not line should be set in the neighborhood of 9-3. That accounts for a 1-2 record versus those top three teams and another loss somewhere else. Give yourself a chance at double-digit wins, make a serious (and probably successful) run at a conference title, and you've proven Cristobal right for staying.

Prognosis

It always drives me crazy when analysts get caught up in a program's surge and predict it to continue even after difference-makers leave. "I know that [Amazing Player A] is gone, but I expect [Improved Team B] to not only absorb that loss, but improve despite it!"

(Example: A = Ndamukong Suh, B = "2010 Nebraska.")

(Another example: A = "Jarius Wright, Joe Adams, Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas." B = "2012 Arkansas.")

This line of thinking is what leads certain teams to get massively overrated heading into a given season. So trust me, I realize how tenuous it sounds to say I know that T.Y. Hilton is gone, but I expect Florida International to not only absorb that loss, but improve despite it. But I'm saying it anyway. When your superstar is virtually the ONLY player you lose, you've already gotten a head start on learning how to move the ball without him, your recruiting has been top-notch considering the level of competition, your schedule cooperates, and your depth of options is so strong, you can absorb such a loss. FIU has a level of depth that Sun Belt teams just aren't supposed to have; now if they can just figure out that whole "terrible offense in the fourth quarter" thing, they will be set.

While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together:

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