Maryland takes on Florida International in Week 2 Sept. 9, and before the game in south Florida we exchanged questions with Panthers' beat reporter Walter Villa of the Miami Herald. His insight into the FIU program is below:
Terrapin Times: More programs in Florida besides the mainstays -- UF, FSU, Miami -- seem to be making strides and climbing the ladder, most notably USF and UCF. Has FIU made strides to improve and are they making an effort to keep the second-tier local talent home like USF and UCF, who both have good 2017 recruiting classes thus far? Is this a program on the rise?
Walter Villa: I think there are three main tiers in Florida in terms of talent and also resources, media coverage, etc. At the top are FSU, Miami and Florida. The middle tier has South Florida and Central Florida. And the third tier has FIU and Florida Atlantic, both from Conference USA and both rivals in the South Florida area.
This is the 15th year of the FIU program. They have made a bowl game just twice, in 2010 and 2011 under coach Mario Cristobal, who has been the Alabama offensive line coach – and a top Florida recruiter - since 2013.
Ron Turner, the brother of NFL offensive coordinator Norv Turner, is in his fourth year at FIU. They have made incremental improvements since bottoming out with one win in 2013. FIU won four games in 2014 and five last year.
There are a lot of games on the schedule that are considered toss-ups, so it is tough to predict. But there is a doable path to at least six wins and being bowl eligible.
TT: FIU hung with Indiana for three quarters before falling in Week 1. Was the fact FIU stayed with a Big Ten team a surprise? Also, what went wrong at the end when IU pulled away?
WV: Not a huge surprise in staying with Indiana. The Hoosiers are Big Ten, yes, but not a Big Ten power. The same can be said for Maryland.
FIU lost the turnover battle 3-1 and just wasn’t good enough to win that game. They threw three interceptions, two of them for pick-six touchdowns, and they never really stopped Indiana’s drip-drip-drip offense. They didn’t allow Indiana’s offense much in the way of explosive plays, but they didn’t get enough stops, either.
TT: Who are FIU's X-factors or game changers? Who are the players opponents have to key on, and what makes them effective?
WV: Quarterback Alex McGough had a bad game against Indiana, but he is a third-year starter and he set school records for passing yards and touchdowns last season.
Tight end Jonnu Smith is the team’s top pro prospect and the best at his position they have ever had at FIU. Alex Gardner is a decent running back who also caught 60 passes last year. Wide receiver Thomas Owens has the best hands on the team. And three young guys to watch are receivers Stantley Thomas and Tony Gaiter IV and running back/kick returner Anthony Jones.
TT: What are the Panthers' greatest strengths, and what areas are their concerns?
WV: The greatest strengths are the aforementioned playmakers and a veteran coaching staff. The linebackers are good, too, but the weakness is that they haven’t shown the ability, so far this season, of winning the turnover battle and just making big plays in general.
TT: What is FIU's offensive philosophy and what kind of scheme do they run? Same with defense -- what's the scheme and style?
WV: On offense, they started out with a three-receiver set, no fullback, and they will use that a lot. They are not afraid to throw the ball, even pinned at their own one-yard line. That resulted in a safety last week, but it shows the fearless play-calling. They run a standard 4-3 on defense.
TT: How do you see this game playing out? Is an upset in the works since FIU is at home and they just played a Big Ten team in Week 1?
WV: I am not much on predictions. I haven’t seen Maryland, so it wouldn’t be a prediction based on anything real. Maryland won big last week but against a nothing opponent so that doesn’t tell me much.
By pedigree, even a mediocre Big Ten team should beat a Conference USA team. But I don’t rule out an FIU upset, especially at home.
The Wise Guys in Las Vegas have Maryland favored by 10, and they usually know what they’re talking about.