Florida International is still a relatively young program. They began playing football in 2002. After competing for three years at the I-AA, or FCS, level, the Panthers moved to FBS in 2005, joining the Sun Belt Conference.
Under head coach Mario Cristobal, the Panthers like to schedule as many tough Division I opponents to their non-conference schedule. The goal--as they head into 2010 with high expectations--was to get competitive as fast as possible. In their first year of Division I football in 2005, they opened with a game at Kansas State. They opened at Penn State two years ago, and played both Alabama and Florida as part of its 2009 schedule.
This year's schedule starts off with five consecutive non-conference games including a highly anticipated matchup with Rutgers on September 11. Texas A&M, Maryland and Western Kentucky comprise this year's non-conference schedule.
Big Senior Class Pays Its Due
Florida International has 15 seniors on its roster, 13 of them true seniors who were forced into action as true freshmen in 2007. Though the Panthers haven't had it easy, as they enter their sixth season of being a Division I program, one thing to watch for is how well the seniors display what they have learned over the last three seasons--how well they've matured from having to help this team right away, and how previous experience against a cluster of tough opponents (I.e. Florida and Alabama in 2009), have helped prepare them to lead the way for a successful 2010. It may not sound like the biggest senior class in terms of numbers, but this is head coach Mario Cristobal's first full class that he recruited to Florida International. For a program this young, this senior class means a lot to which way this program is going to go next.
One of the bright spots, offensively, for Florida International was the play of quarterback Paul McCall, who graduated after throwing for 2,378 yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior Wayne Younger was his backup last year, but Mississippi State transfer Wesley Carroll, who sat out last year because of his transfer, is expected to compete. Carroll started 13 games in two years with the Bulldogs, including nine as a freshman, where he earned SEC All-Freshman team honors.
Florida International Struggles Running and Stopping the Run
Even with decent numbers in the passing game last year, The Panthers had no help from the ground game. Daunte Owens (93 carries, 376 yards, 5 TD) and Darriet Perry (103 carries, 301 yards, 3 TD), split carries a year ago. Owens graduated, while Perry returns. The question will be if Perry cannot improve from his 2.9 yards per carry a year ago, who else will platoon with him this season? Much like the quarterback position, Florida International has an incoming transfer in Jeremiah Harden, a former Syracuse standout.
Defensively, the Panthers gave up an average of 232.8 yards a game last season--something that doesn't bode well for facing a Pitt team that returns Dion Lewis, Henry Hynoski and Ray Graham. Even though Florida International returns four of its top six tacklers from last season, two of them were members of the secondary, and the unit returns only one starter on the defensive line (Tourek Williams), who is a sophomore.
Who To Watch For
T.Y. Hilton is the big play threat every time he touches the ball. In the opener last year, he returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against eventual national champ Alabama. He was limited with some nagging injuries as a sophomore last year, but still had 57 receptions for 632 yards and five touchdowns. In the kick return game, Hilton returned 22 kicks for 633 yards--an average of 28.8 yards a return.
Brad Serini can be considered one of the top centers in the country. For the second year in a row, he begins the season as a finalist for the Rimington Award, which is given to the nation's top center. Serini has started all 36 games of this career, including his first year with the program, where he was a Freshman All-America selection.
Anthony Gaiter enters his senior year at corner as the team's leader on defense, as well as Florida International's best pro prospect. The Miami-Northwestern alum has been an all-conference selection two years in a row. He has nine career interceptions, but is also a gifted tackler. In 35 career starts in his three seasons with the program, Gaiter has racked up 155 tackles--probably not a good thing when a member of the secondary has that many tackles, but he seems to do a pretty good job of making them.