Here we have yet another program that had been pegged to finish near the bottom of its conference. Given the history, it was easy to see why. FIU had won nine games in the previous three seasons under coach Mario Cristobal, and was still feeling the effects of NCAA sanctions and scholarship losses. But Cristobal was determined to build a program living in the shadow of his alma mater, the University of Miami. He preached hard work and discipline, and got his players to believe. That showed immediately, when the Panthers blew fourth-quarter leads in near upsets to Rutgers and Texas A&M.
FIU started 0-4, but all four losses came to schools from bigger conferences, and they actually served to give the Panthers confidence because they could see the results of their efforts -- even if they were falling short. Wes Carroll stepped up at quarterback after winning a competition over Wayne Younger early in the season. Darriet Perry and Darrian Mallary proved to be a good duo at running back, and T.Y. Hilton continued his tear at receiver. Defensively, Anthony Gaitor set the tone as he has done throughout his career. What happened next is the stuff of history. FIU overcame an ugly loss to rival Florida Atlantic and beat conference heavyweight Troy for the first time in school history. That gave the Panthers the head-to-head advantage and eventually led to the first Sun Belt championship in league history, along with the first bowl bid in school history. FIU finished 6-6 and has a chance for the first winning season in school history with a win in the bowl game.
Offensive MVP: T.Y. Hilton. Mr. All-Purpose did it all for FIU once again: 816 receiving yards with four touchdowns; 278 yards rushing and four TDs; 785 yards in punt/kickoff returns and one touchdown.
Defensive MVP: Anthony Gaitor. He finished with 50 tackles, 8.5 for loss, three sacks and two interceptions to lead the defense once again.
Turning point: A 52-35 win over Troy put FIU in the driver’s seat for the Sun Belt. Even though the Panthers dropped the season finale to Middle Tennessee, their win over Troy allowed them to become co-champions.
What’s next: FIU plays Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl on Dec. 26 and could be poised for more success. Nearly everybody returns on offense, though FIU has to deal with the loss of Gaitor.