Richard Gibson / Sports Director
As the Fall semester has kicked off for FIU, the beginning of the college football season is right around the corner.
Featuring a full 12-game season and high expectations, the Panthers will look to erase last year’s season as soon as possible.
A Forgettable 2020 Campaign
There’s no hiding it- the ceiling is very low for FIU this year. Apart from the 0-5 record and lack of a bowl game last year, multiple games were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns within FIU, or because the Panthers didn’t have enough healthy players to form a full roster- or a combination of the two.
In the beginning, there was something to look forward to. Despite losing their opener to the Liberty Flames, FIU played a tough, gritty match all the way to the end. The same could be said for their 31-28 loss to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders.
However, the following week spelled disaster when FIU lost to the Jacksonville State Gamecocks, an FCS school which is in a lower division than the Panthers, and was meant to be an easy win for FIU, an FBS school.
After a cancelled game against the UTEP Miners, the Panthers proceeded to lose two more games to the Florida Atlantic Owls and Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, and the rest of their season was slowly cancelled.
How it Came Crashing Down
The biggest problem that FIU faced in the 2020 season on the field was their quarterback play. The Panthers relied on a rotation system that swapped quarterbacks every other drive, or even every other play.
If one quarterback started the game and suffered a lackluster drive, it was likely they would be immediately replaced by another quarterback who would hopefully right their wrongs. The quarterbacks in rotation last year were Stone Norton, Max Bortenschlager, and Kaylan Wiggins.
As an example, the New Orleans Saints of the NFL had a similar system a few years ago when they would sometimes replace Drew Brees with Taysom Hill on third downs. The Saints found some success with this strategy. But for the Panthers, this never clicked for them.
Throughout the season, no single quarterback could grow and develop as they saw limited time on the field. No matter who it was, the offense had a hard time advancing on third down, finding successful yardage on first down, or taking the ball to the end zone.
Aside from the offense, the team as a whole struggled with getting off the field due to penalties. They committed 31 penalties in five games of work, giving up 235 potential yards that could have stopped the opposing team’s offense, or helped their offense reach the other side of the field.
Righting the Wrongs
Multiple changes were made to the coaching staff in an attempt to fix FIU’s nagging issues. One such change was the firing of their offensive coordinator, Rich Skrosky. He had spent four years with the Panthers, but the struggles of the offense in 2020 spelt the end of his time in Miami. FIU’s new offensive coordinator is Andrew Breiner, who was part of the Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff last year.
Both defensive coordinators last year have also been relieved of their duties- Jeff Copp and Jerod Kruse. Taking their place in 2021 is Everett Withers, who has worked for multiple collegiate programs, including the Texas Longhorns, North Carolina Tarheels, and James Madison Dukes.
In addition, the special teams coordinator has also been changed, with Harrison Green being replaced with Casey Horny, who spent the last four seasons with the Texas Longhorns.
Returning for his fifth year at FIU, head coach Butch Davis is hoping that the new additions to the staff will play a big part in turning the program around.
“I’m very excited to have Coach Breiner and Coach Horny join our staff,” said Coach Davis in a statement for FIU Athletics. “They both bring a great deal of expertise, energy, ideas, schemes and do a great job of motivating players. They will also be a great addition to our staff’s chemistry.”
There’s a lot at stake for Davis this season. In his four years at FIU, the Panthers have been to three bowl games but have walked away with only one trophy. With the past 0-5 season, there’s high expectations for Davis to lead the Panthers back to another bowl game and add another trophy to FIU’s small-but-growing collection.
Some Veteran Leadership
One advantage that FIU will have this season is that the majority of their senior class last year are eligible to play this season. A majority of college football teams last season had to cancel multiple games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the NCAA made seniors eligible to compete one more year to prove their worth to professional football teams.
This means that multiple veterans within the program will start for one more year, including wide receiver Shemar Thornton, punter Tommy Heatherly, and arguably FIU’s most successful player in their entire roster- running back D’Vonte Price.
Price has high expectations to have another breakout season. Despite last year’s shortcomings, Price was FIU’s leading rusher, recording 581 rushing yards, 65 rushing attempts, and four touchdowns.
His talents have been recognized on a national level, as he’s been named to the Senior Bowl Watch List. The Reese’s Senior Bowl is an all-star game featuring some of college football’s most up-and-coming players. Price is the first Panther to be on the watch list since James Morgan and Sage Lewis in 2019.
New, Ready Recruits
The recruiting class for FIU in 2021 featured 18 players, with nine players on offense, and nine on defense. 15 of the recruits are from the state of Florida, with the other three being from Colorado, Maryland, and Texas.
Some notable players that might make an impact early at FIU include wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, a sophomore who transferred from the Sacred Heart Pioneers. Another member of the offense, lineman JD Gomez is a redshirt junior from Miami Senior High School, who had spent a season with the Temple Owls.
Rated as a four-star prospect from 247 Sports, freshman defensive tackle Savion Collins is FIU’s third-highest rated recruit in program history. A local product from Miami Palmetto High School, Collins will look to become a threat for every quarterback FIU will face.
Leading the Helm
With the quarterback rotation system of old likely being replaced with a single quarterback system, a very important question remains: Who should be the starting quarterback for FIU’s offense?
Both Kaylan Wiggins and Max Bortenschlager will be returning this season. The latter quarterback led FIU in passing yards in 2020 with 284 total, while Stone Norton threw the most touchdowns with three total, but was also sacked 11 times.
Three new quarterbacks have also been added to the Panther’s roster- Isaiah Velez, Haden Carlson, and Grayson James. All of these quarterbacks are freshmen, with Velez and Carlson being from Florida. Still, the battle for the starting quarterback position is likely still between Wiggins and Bortenschlager based on experience and skill gaps.
That said, both quarterbacks have cases to make for the starting position, but Kaylan Wiggins might be the one to take a chance on when the season starts. Wiggins is considered by some to be a more electric playmaker.
While Wiggins might not have as strong an arm as Bortenschlager, Wiggins can scramble out of the pocket and make negative plays become positive yardage. He experienced the least amount of time on the field last year, but proved in 2019 that he can be a solid performer if given the opportunity.
UPDATE: FIU Football announced that Bortenschlager will be the starting quarterback for the season opener against Long Island.
The Road Ahead
Unless there’s a change in plans, the 2021 season will be 12 full games, and college teams including FIU will need to win at least six games to be considered bowl eligible.
Vs Long Island Sharks (09/02 7pm)
FIU will begin their season at home with an unfamiliar foe, the Long Island Sharks from the Northeast Conference. This will be the first time FIU will play the FCS school. Another team that suffered from the pandemic, the Sharks finished the season with a 2-2 record, falling to the likes of Sacred Heart and Duquesne.
Talent wise, this should be a solid first game for the Panthers. When FBS teams match up against FCS schools, they’re usually meant to be warm-up games for the rest of the season, but upsets have occurred every now and then, such as the Jacksonville State game.
Vs Texas State Bobcats (09/11 7pm)
Another home game, FIU will host Texas State, a member of the Sun Belt Conference. Much like Long Island, both schools have never met in football. The Bobcats were able to play a full 12 game season last year, but only won two games. All signs point to another win for the Panthers as tougher competition will begin to roll in.
At Texas Tech Red Raiders (09/18 7pm)
FIU’s first road game will be in Lubbock, Texas. The Red Raiders are a member of the Big 12, one of the Power 5 Conferences in college football- the others are the ACC, SEC, Big 10, and Pac-12. These five conferences have produced some of the most consistently successful teams in the college football landscape.
Despite this, the Red Raiders had a mediocre 2020 campaign, going 4-6 and missing a bowl game. Still, Texas Tech plays consistently tougher opponents compared to the likes of Conference USA. They will be favored in this matchup, but it won’t be impossible for FIU to walk away with an upset win.
At Central Michigan Chippewas (09/25 Time TBA)
A member of the Mid-American Conference, Central Michigan is another school that FIU has never faced before in football. The Chippewas had a 3-3 season in 2021, beating the likes of Ohio, Northern Illinois, and Eastern Michigan. This should be an even matchup for both schools, and the game could go in either team’s direction.
At Florida Atlantic Owls (10/02 3:30pm)
A surprisingly early Shula Bowl, the classic rivalry between both schools will be in Boca Raton this year. A tradition that has lasted since 2002, both teams have played each other in football every year since then.
FAU has had the overall momentum in the series. Out of their 19 meetings, the Owls have 14 wins and have won the last four games played. Last season’s 38-19 loss to FAU put the Panthers in a difficult spot that they couldn’t climb out of.
The Owls finished last year with a 5-4 record and made it to the Cramton Bowl against the Memphis Tigers, but ultimately lost. With the matchup being as early as it is, beating FAU would create momentum for the Panthers that could last the rest of the season.
Vs Charlotte 49ers (10/08 7pm)
Back in Miami, FIU will face off against Charlotte for the fifth time, and the Panthers have never lost to them. With a 2-4 record last year, the 49ers are looking to finally break through against FIU, but the Panthers should have the advantage in the matchup.
Vs Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (10/23 7pm)
After a week off, the Panthers will stay in Miami for a rematch against one of their losses last season, Western Kentucky. FIU had won the first two meetings between WKU prior to 2020 in outstanding fashion, but the Hilltoppers had a solid season last year, finishing with a 5-7 record and a trip to the LendingTree Bowl, where they lost to Georgia State.
This will likely be a tough challenge for the Panthers. WKU has young, progrssive talent on their side, but FIU will be relying on their experienced playmakers to get the job done and flip the series back in favor of the Panthers.
At Marshall Thundering Herd (10/30 3:30pm)
This game can likely become FIU’s toughest test of the season. Marshall is one of the premiere teams in Conference USA, placing first out of the seven teams in the Eastern Division with a 7-3 record. They made it all the way to the Camellia Bowl, ultimately losing to Buffalo.
It’s also a historically bad matchup for FIU, as they’ve lost six out their eight meetings. Marshall will be competing for another podium finish in Conference USA, so this game will prove to be a test for the Panthers to see where they fit in the conference. If they can pull off the win, it should set them up nicely for the rest of the campaign.
Vs Old Dominion Monarchs (11/06 7pm)
This game has the potential to be an interesting matchup. Due to the pandemic, ODU didn’t play at all last year. In 2019, they finished with a 1-11 record, but still gave FIU trouble, as the Panthers edged them out by a score of 24-17.
Whether the lack of football in 2020 will prove to be a major disadvantage for the Monarchs will remain to be seen, but this should be a very probable win for the Panthers.
At Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (11/13 3:30pm)
The last team that FIU will face that beat them last season, Middle Tennessee has also won 11 of their 16 matchups. The Panthers have played inconsistently against them, winning some close games while getting blown out in others.
The Blue Raiders won three out of their nine games in 2020. This will be another test for the Panthers, as their run for another bowl game appearance might not be guaranteed at this point in the season.
Vs North Texas Mean Green (11/20 7pm)
This will be the final game of the season at the Riccardo Silva Stadium. While FIU has played North Texas eight times, they haven’t met since 2014. The Mean Green ended up with a 4-6 record in 2020, losing to Appalachian State in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.
At Southern Miss Golden Eagles (11/27 3pm)
The final game of the regular season for FIU will be against an unfamiliar Southern Miss team, with their only meeting being eight years ago. Every game will matter for the Panthers this season, so they should bring all their momentum into this game to secure a spot in their program’s fifth bowl game.
With a lot on the line for a new, revamped coaching staff and veteran-led roster, the 2021 season for the Panthers should be a step up from 2020. Since FIU upset the Miami Hurricanes in 2019, they haven’t won a game since. Still, the Panthers will have 12 chances this year to get their program back on the right track.