Summer Vacation: The Florida International Golden Panthers and the Best Trip to Detroit ... Ever!

And with this, we are officially done with one conference! Now you hopefully know more about the Sun Belt Conference than you ever intended or wanted to know.  Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

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.

Actually, I'll stop there and simply cede the floor to the great Bruce Feldman.

Just four years ago, when Cristobal got the job, FIU was winless. No program at the FBS level has had to overcome more. The program was in complete disarray when he arrived. I have been down to visit FIU before Cristobal arrived and after. There was no weight room, no meeting rooms, no film setup. It was unlike any Division I program I'd ever seen. This is a program that has still had just one offseason in a weight room since Cristobal has been at FIU. Many of the players had to work out on a bow-flex machine in some makeshift room. Players often had to sit on the floor of coaches' offices for position meetings.

Worse still, right when Cristobal took over the program, it had to absorb almost 30 lost scholarships in three and a half years.

All Cristobal had to sell was a vision and opportunity. There is no coach in college football who works harder, and, as for many of his peers at the Sun Belt and MAC level, much of it has been out of the spotlight. Not just in recruiting but also in community outreach in hopes of building a base.

...

You'd have to be pretty cynical not to have felt for those players as you watched the postgame celebration. In the midst of all of it, Greg Ellingson, a senior from Tampa and one of those FIU players who was there in the darkest days back in 2007, ran around shaking fans' hands and thanking them for coming.

Of course, there were thousands of empty seats, but for a program without an identity, the second half of Sunday night's game was quite a commercial.

Yes, it was just Toledo.  And yes, it was just the Little Caesars Pizza! Pizza! Bowl.  But this was indeed pretty awesome.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk**: 66
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
11-Sep Rutgers 14-19 L 18.6 - 15.6 W
18-Sep at Texas A&M 20-27 L 14.8 - 25.3 L
25-Sep at Maryland 28-42 L 36.0 - 32.5 W
2-Oct at Pittsburgh 17-44 L 24.8 - 39.2 L
9-Oct Western Kentucky 28-21 W 36.2 - 26.7 W
16-Oct at North Texas 34-10 W 31.0 - 16.7 W
30-Oct at Florida Atlantic 9-21 L 14.4 - 37.4 L
6-Nov UL-Monroe 42-35 W 33.5 - 35.1 L
13-Nov at Troy 52-35 W 46.3 - 25.6 W
20-Nov at UL-Lafayette 38-17 W 26.6 - 29.3 L
27-Nov Arkansas State 31-24 W 25.2 - 24.2 W
4-Dec Middle Tennessee 27-28 L 30.0 - 31.7 L
26-Dec vs Toledo 34-32 W 22.7 - 33.0 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 28.8 51 27.3 65
Adj. Points Per Game 27.7 57 28.6 68

Florida International's 2010 season shows rather clearly how Adj. Score tells a completely different story than actual score.  In real life, FIU started 0-4, with losses to four difference BCS conference teams.  They then plowed out a 6-2 record in conference play to win a share of their first Sun Belt title and clinch a bowl bid.  Adj. Score, however, shows that they earned a good portion of their solid F/+ ranking of 66th in the opening month of the season.  They played well enough to beat average teams in four of their first six games (while they were going 2-4), then played rather average ball down the stretch (while going 5-2).  Their bowl performance was one of their worst of the year, but they figured out a way to gut out a win regardless.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 59 61 55
RUSHING 55 68 48 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 64 56 67 63
Standard Downs 59 54 74 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 59 81 51 37
Redzone 50 71 45
Q1 Rk 71 1st Down Rk 78
Q2 Rk 43 2nd Down Rk 41
Q3 Rk 86 3rd Down Rk 77
Q4 Rk 78

Florida International's 2010 offense was based in old-school principles.  Run on standard downs, pass on passing downs, run in the red zone, and don't stray from the script too often.  FIU was efficient on standard downs and played for big plays (and lower efficiency) on passing downs, and they put together one of the more well-rounded mid-major offenses in the country.  Their only major weakness, really, was passing downs efficiency -- their disproportional number of passing downs passes put a lot of pressure on both quarterback Wes Carroll and his stat line (2,623 yards, 62% completion rate, 7.1 yards per pass, 16 TD, 14 INT).  Otherwise, they were stellar (for a mid-major team) across the board.

Most of the major components from this stellar offense return in 2011.  Carroll's back, as is defending Sun Belt player of the year T.Y. Hilton.  In three years, Hilton has racked up 2,867 rushing and receiving yards, and 28 rushing, receiving and return touchdowns.  He is the definition of an all-purpose threat.  Somehow Cristobal convinced him to stay home instead of following offers to West Virginia or Ole Miss; he may have just been a little 5'10, 160-pound, two-star hometown recruit, but he has done more than any player to build the FIU program.  Recruiting changes your program, even if you really don't know in advance who's going to do the changing.

Hilton got help last year from receiver Greg Ellingson (612 yards, 14.2/catch, 9.0/target, 5 TD), who is now gone; look for junior/possession receiver extraordinaire Wayne Times (341 yards, 12.2/catch, 10.0/target, 82% catch rate) to see a few more passes this fall.

Other tidbits:

  • There was more to the offense than just Hilton and the passing game, however.  Four running backs (Darriet Perry, Darian Mallary, Jeremiah Harden and Kedrick Rhodes) combined for 2,138 yards on the ground and 430 in the air.  Perry (839 yards, 16 touchdowns, +9.2 Adj. POE) led the way.  All four return in 2011.
  • Though three starters return, the Panthers could miss all-conference center Brad Serini.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 76 60 95
RUSHING 103 76 115 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 64 53 72 79
Standard Downs 88 60 103 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 59 47 65 55
Redzone 67 32 89
Q1 Rk 30 1st Down Rk 107
Q2 Rk 99 2nd Down Rk 41
Q3 Rk 60 3rd Down Rk 36
Q4 Rk 109

Going all the way back to 2006-07 (when FIU was going 1-23), defense really was not reason FIU was losing games.  The Golden Panthers were never a great defensive team, but as you see in the F/+ Progression chart below, they were always hovering just a step below average -- 80th in Def. F/+ in 2006, 85th in 2007, 73rd in 2008, 92nd in 2009.  Not great, but not the problem.

In 2010, the FIU offense caught up to the D, but the D still held its own.  Like the offense, they were based in old-school philosophy.  Play it straight and conservative on standard downs, then attack on passing downs.  They got a little too conservative, a little too friendly, on standard downs, and it resulted in quite a few big plays on first downs.  But if they got you where they wanted you on third down, they closed the deal.  Rarely will you see down-to-down splits like the ones above.  FIU had one of the worse first-down defenses in the country ... and one of the better second- and third-down defenses.  It gives you the impression that they were far too predictable early on, then got creative when they felt the opportunity to attack.

Pass D was a strength in 2010, but it will take a little work not to fall back a bit in that regard.  Cristobal and wonderfully named defensive coordinator Todd Orlando must replace two stars in the secondary -- all-conference draft prospect Anthony Gaitor (44.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU) and strong safety Ashlyn Parker (53.5 tackles, 2 FF, 2 INT) -- and their best all-around pass rusher, all-conference end Jarvis Wilson (34.0 tackles, 15.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 INT.  While that might not hurt them much on standard downs (clearly those three didn't help a ton last year), it might make it tougher for the D to bail itself out on passing downs.

Other tidbits:

  • The D will also have to figure out how to account for the loss of all-conference linebacker Toronto Smith (70.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks).  With Winston Fraser returning, the unit should still have a star, but we'll find out soon enough how well Cristobal has built depth here.
  • That's quite a bit to replace, but there are still plenty of interesting pieces returning.  End Tourek Williams (33.0 tackles, 13.5 TFL/sacks) was a second-team all-conference performer -- we'll see if he can duplicate those numbers without Wilson lining up opposite him.  Free safety Jonathan Cyprien (88.0 tackles -- too high for a safety, really -- 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 6 PBU) returns, as do three interesting cornerbacks: Jose Cheeseborough, Emmanuel Souarin, and Junior Mertile.

Florida International's 2010 Season Set to Music

While expectations might start to build in the future, the thought of a simple bowl bid (and win) probably seemed like an impossible dream for FIU not too long ago.  So since I'm determined to make reference to every song on my iPod in this series, let's make another list ... ten great songs with "dream" in the title (most of which, by the way, are not happy, dreamy songs).

"Africa Dream," Talib Kweli
"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," Bob Dylan
"City of Dreams," Marah
"Dream Brother," Jeff Buckley
"The Dream's Dream," Television
"Dreamer in my Dreams," Wilco
"Dreamin' Again," Jim Croce (the second Croce reference this week!)
"Dreams," Allman Brothers
"Moon Dreams," Miles Davis
"St. Robinson In His Cadillac Dream," Counting Crows

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

It really was rare to see a defense so bad on first downs and so good on third downs.

Largest Differences Between Def. First Down S&P+ Ranking and Third Down S&P+ Ranking (3rd > 1st)
1. 2008 Army (92 spots -- 103rd on First Down, 11th on Third)
2. 2005 Central Florida (81 spots -- 102nd on First, 21st on Third)
3. 2009 Florida State (81 spots -- 108th on First, 27th on Third)
4. 2009 Arkansas (75 spots -- 87th on First, 12th on Third)
5. 2010 Florida International (71 spots -- 107th on First, 36th on Third)
6. 2007 Baylor (68 spots -- 91st on First, 23rd on Third)
7. 2010 New Mexico (68 spots -- 119th on First, 51st on Third)
8. 2009 Miami-Ohio (65 spots -- 109th on First, 44th on Third)
9. 2006 UNLV (64 spots -- 107th on First, 43rd on Third)
10. 2008 Texas Tech (63 spots -- 76th on First, 13th on Third)

For whatever it's worth to you, six of eight pre-2010 defenses on that list saw their Def. S&P+ ranking improve by double digits the next year.  If FIU can do that without Wilson, Gaitor, Parker and T. Smith, more power to them.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 101
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 85
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +4 / +7
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (7, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.2

In general, F/+ projections are pre-disposed to predicting a drop-off the year after a surge.  A team's four-year history is as good a predictor of future success as last year's numbers, and to 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.

And really, there's a lot to like about the Sun Belt as a whole. Sure, they're still the weakest overall conference (we're speaking relatively here, after all), but the depth is infinitely more impressive than it was a few years ago.  Troy is still Troy, FIU is surging, Middle Tennessee has built a level of sustained success, Arkansas State has an intriguing offense, UL-Monroe is perfectly executing underdog strategies, Western Kentucky is recruiting well, North Texas has a solid coach and probably the best facilities in the conference.  Granted, Florida Atlantic is spinning its wheels right now, and UL-Lafayette is still a year or two away from potentially gaining traction, but this is the most the Sun Belt has had going for it in a while, and as long as the coaching roster remains intact, a lot of the growth seems rather sustainable.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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