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Butch Davis is back in Miami and has maybe the country’s most experienced roster

Now can he give FIU a winning identity?

Butch Davis

Florida International University sits approximately three miles from Miami Columbus High School, four from Miami Southwest, nine from Coral Gables High, and 13 from Miami High.

It is 14 from Booker T. Washington, Jackson, and Westminster Christian, 17 from Miami Northwestern, and 19 from Miami Central.

Et cetera. Carol City High: 21 miles away. South Dade: 24. Norland: 24. St. Thomas Aquinas: 34. Piper: 37. Dillard: 38.

You would need a hefty scroll to write down all of the high-caliber football players produced by high schools within 40 miles of FIU’s campus.

And FIU has won 17 games in the last five seasons. In its 13-year FBS existence, the Panthers have finished better than 5-7 twice.

If you remember three things about FIU football, they're probably these:

  1. This spectacular brawl.
  2. T.Y. Hilton.
  3. Firing Mario Cristobal, the engineer of FIU's two winning seasons, after a single-year step backwards.

Six years ago, Cristobal took over a program that predecessor Don Strock left in a mess. He inherited NCAA sanctions not of his doing (as Al Golden similarly would with the crosstown Hurricanes). But he worked through the lean years and saw the program finally begin to gain stability, a local footprint, a bit of national credibility.

Then came the off-year AD Pete Garcia would not abide.

A “total collapse,” he called it.

The 3-9 record included five losses by one score.

That’s ... less than vaunted. FIU is smack in the middle of some of the most prime real estate in the country — even if you aren’t going to fight it out with FSU and Florida and Miami, the leftovers are pretty impressive, too — and has yet to establish itself in the slightest.

Rumor had it that, upon dismissing Cristobal, Garcia would end up bringing in his friend Davis as the replacement. The idea made sense, at least as far as good decisions to compensate for terrible decisions go. Davis remains a South Florida legend for what he did at the University of Miami about two decades ago.

At The U, he took over a sanctions-riddled program in 1995 and, after a few shaky years of surfing scholarship limitations, sculpted a devastating squad. His 2000 Canes finished 11-1 and No. 2 in the polls and featured linebacker Dan Morgan (of Coral Gables), receiver Santana Moss (Miami), and offensive lineman Joaquin Gonzalez (Miami). He sealed the State of Miami borders.

Though Davis' glory days appeared to be behind him — after a stint in the pros, he had gone just 28-23 in four years at North Carolina, then got fired amid NCAA allegations — if he was still capable of something spectacular, it would probably be in South Florida.

So that's the move Garcia made. Four years later. First, he brought in another friend, veteran Ron Turner.

When Garcia made the decision to dump Cristobal, he cited FIU's 8-14 record over its previous 22 games. That's missing plenty of context — losing a bunch of stars from 2011, losing a bunch of close games in 2012 — but it's a win percentage of 0.364 all the same.

In the four years since Cristobal's ouster, FIU's win percentage is 0.292.

But whatever. Davis is finally here. And he's wasted no time circling the wagons. From the time of his mid-November hire to National Signing Day, he roped in 13 commitments, seven of whom went to school within 30 miles of FIU and two more from 80 miles up the road in West Palm Beach.

Davis is quickly doing Davis things, and he’s going to be part of a fascinating plot in the coming years. With Lane Kiffin getting hired by FAU and Charlie Strong at USF, Florida mid-majors have gone all in on hiring ace recruiters. Which will end up with the upper hand? And how will this affect other programs that rely on supplementing their rosters with three-star Floridians? Will there be as many left to nab with Strong, Davis, Kiffin, and UCF’s successful recruiters on patrol?

Of course, there’s another question: can Davis still coach? It’s been more than six years since he was run out of Chapel Hill, and it’s been more than 16 since his last nine-win season. (Well, he won nine games with the Cleveland Browns in 2002, but you know what I mean.) Corralling South Florida talent is step one. Doing something with it is step two.

Davis inherits one of FBS’ most experienced rosters in 2017, but that might only mean so much of a makeover is due.


2016 in review

2016 FIU statistical profile.

I feel it would be unfair to Turner to not mention that he did come reasonably close to getting this program off the ground. After a 1-11 debut in 2013, he improved the Panthers to 4-8 and 109th in S&P+ in 2014, then held steady at 5-7 and 110th despite horrible injuries luck in 2015.

The offense appeared ready to improve at least a bit last fall, and if the defense could account for turnover up front and at cornerback, it wasn't out of the question that the Panthers could threaten for a bowl bid.

The offense was awful early, scoring 14 or fewer points in each of the first four games. The defense, meanwhile, allowed 34-plus in three of four. Following a 53-14 loss to a UCF team FIU had beaten a year earlier, Turner was gone.

Ron Cooper (long-ago head man at EMU and Louisville) took over as interim, and FIU began to show some of the potential I thought it might have. But the defense never came around. And it was far too late anyway.

  • First 4 games (0-4) — Avg. percentile performance: 16% | Avg. score: Opp 37, FIU 14 | Yards per play: Opp 6.2, FIU 4.6 (-1.6)
  • Last 8 games (4-4) — Avg. percentile performance: 31% | Avg. score: Opp 34, FIU 29 | Yards per play: Opp 6.4, FIU 5.8 (-0.6)

Offense

FIU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

FIU's offense was decent at not moving backward in 2016. That's something. But as was the case for most of Turner's tenure, it also didn't really move forward. This was the Panthers' best offense since 2012 (Cristobal's last year), but it still ranked only 96th in Off. S&P+, and it didn't show much potential until Cooper was gone.

Still, FIU did improve offensively, and it did so with both youth and injury getting in the way. Starting quarterback Alex McGough missed the last three games of the year, the two most dangerous receiving weapons (according to yards per target) missed a combined six games, and the offensive line was missing its only two-year starter (guard Jordan Budwig) up front.

In 2017, McGough and sophomore backups Maurice Alexander and Christian Alexander all return, as do the top three running backs (including Alex Gardner, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry and nearly topped 1,000 yards), seven of the top eight receiving targets (plus a 2015 contributor in slot receiver Julian Williams), and, including Budwig, four linemen with starting experience.

Marshall v Florida International
Alex Gardner
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

That's a decent amount for new coordinator Rich Skrosky to work with.

Davis looked to a pair of veterans to serve as his coordinators. Skrosky and defensive coordinator Brent Guy bring more than 60 years' worth of experience, and while that isn't all good experience, it's something.

Skrosky's last two gigs left different impressions. From 2011-13, he served as Pete Lembo's OC at Ball State and led what I'll call a high-caliber dink-and-dunk offense. The Cardinals ranked 34th, 19th, and 34th in Off. S&P+ in his three years, and quarterback Keith Wenning completed 64 percent of his passes for 78 touchdowns.

From Ball State, Skrosky went to Elon, where he served as head coach for an outmanned football program. The Phoenix moved to the powerful Colonial Athletic Association but had no chance; Skrosky went 7-27 in three years.

Because Elon was relatively hopeless, we won't bother to attempt to glean anything from his time there. We'll just say that Skrosky's last FBS offense was efficiency-based. And since it’s hard to glean too much from the other offensive assistant hires — running backs coach Tim Harris, Jr. (a holdover), and receivers coach Kevin Beard are well-regarded locals and potentially fantastic recruiters, but that’s about all we know — we’ll stick with that.

Gardner and a pair of sophomores could be key. Forty percent of Gardner's carries gained at least five yards last year, and while more frequent targets like Thomas Owens and Stantley Thomas were all-or-nothing last year, backups Austin Maloney and Darrius Scott caught 42 of 64 passes for 476 yards. There is a lot of experience, but we'll see who steps up.

Florida International v Charlotte
Alex McGough
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Defense

FIU defensive radar

When Turner debuted at FIU, the Panthers' defense offered promise. In 2014, they improved from 107th to 52nd in Def. S&P+, one of the best mid-majors, under coordinator Josh Conklin. But despite extreme experience in 2015, the Panthers, without Conklin, plummeted to 102nd. In 2016, they fell further.

FIU's 2016 defense was decent at preventing big plays ... and that's about it. And the Panthers weren't even good enough at that to claim a bend-don't-break identity. It was just a bad defense.

First-year impact is something Guy knows about. In 2011, his first year as Tulsa coordinator, he moved the pieces around well enough for the Golden Hurricane to improve from 99th to 30th in Def. S&P+. From there, they fell to 51st, 51st, and 119th, and he spent 2015 as Memphis' safeties coach.

Florida International v Massachusetts
Fermin Silva
Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

For now, let's focus on the 2012 unit. Guy's TU defense that year was super-aggressive up front and had the pieces to make it work. The top three defensive ends had 24.5 tackles for loss, the top two tackles had eight, and the top three linebackers had 20. The secondary was active, too.

Guy appears to like havoc, but will he have the pieces to wreak it in 2017? We'll optimistically say maybe.

Here's a list of assets:

  • Senior linebackers Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint combined for 13 TFLs and 3.5 sacks last year. They are especially solid in run support, though they haven't really proven much in pass defense. They'll be without their three biggest tackles (Imarjaye Albury, Marques Cheeks, Leonard Washington), though.
  • If Williams and Wint are able to make some stops against the run, junior end Fermin Silva (5 sacks) could be dangerous on passing downs.
  • A harried quarterback who is rushing throws might play into the hands of cornerbacks Emmanuel Lubin and Isaiah Brown, who combined four interceptions and 12 breakups last year. And a foursome of safeties (Niko Gonzalez, Shermarke Spencer, Xavier Hines, Tyree Johnson) certainly has experience, at least.

The reinforcements could be interesting. Davis brought in two three-star defensive backs, three three-star linebackers, and three three-star defensive linemen. If a couple can make a quick impact, the Panthers might have depth.

That would put the onus back on Guy, then. This is fifth stint as a DC after stops at Boise State (1998-2000), Arizona State (2001-04), Louisville (2009), and Tulsa. He was also Utah State's head coach from 2005-08. He has a lot of experience, but it's been a while since he was in charge of a truly interesting defense. He's got all the experience you want, but that needs to translate.

Florida Atlantic v Florida International
Treyvon Williams
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Special Teams

When you're struggling on defense, and your offense isn't good enough to make up the difference, special teams can keep you afloat to some degree. It can also just weigh you down even more. FIU was decent enough from a returns perspective -- Thomas Owens averaged 12.5 yards per punt return, and Alex Gardner averaged 22.4 yards per kick return -- but punts and kickoffs were ... suboptimal.

Stone Wilson didn't kick many returnable punts, but he also only averaged 37.6 yards per kick. Meanwhile, under 20 percent of Austin Taylor's kickoffs were touchbacks.

Special teams was a field position disaster for the Panthers. Whoever replaces Taylor on kicks and field goals probably needs a bigger leg.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Central Florida 78 -11.3 26%
9-Sep Alcorn State NR 31.5 97%
16-Sep at Indiana 39 -20.4 12%
23-Sep at Rice 120 0.3 51%
30-Sep Charlotte 127 12.0 76%
7-Oct at Middle Tennessee 89 -7.1 34%
14-Oct Tulane 94 0.2 50%
28-Oct at Marshall 101 -4.6 40%
4-Nov UTSA 91 -0.7 48%
11-Nov Old Dominion 93 -0.2 49%
18-Nov at Florida Atlantic 99 -4.9 39%
25-Nov Western Kentucky 51 -12.1 24%
Projected S&P+ Rk 104
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 88 / 108
Projected wins 5.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -14.3 (120)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 92 / 100
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -9 / -5.5
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 85% (85%, 85%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.1 (0.9)

The last act of Howard Schnellenberger’s career was getting FAU off the ground. Granted, he didn’t keep it afloat long, and granted, it hasn’t done much since he left either. But the 65-year-old Davis now has a chance to attempt a similar feat. FIU has been unable to make a sustainable mark in college football despite all the talent in the world in its backyard. Is Davis the man to move this program forward?

Davis’ FIU engine will be powered by recruiting. He has experienced hands at the wheel for offense and defense, but his hires weren’t stunning from a tactical standpoint. Davis is going to try to win by having a more athletic team on the field. And his odds of pulling that off are pretty decent.

That makes 2017 interesting. FIU ranks first in returning production, which correlates to about a touchdown of improvement from seasoning alone. Plus, the Panthers were definitively better over the last two months of 2016. These would be beneficial for pretty much any coach to inherit. But Davis’ first years in his given stops haven’t been particularly amazing. Will he be able to take advantage of the experience?

If so, there are certainly wins to be found.

And if not, is he prepared for another long-term rebuild?


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