FIU's Panthers picked to win SBC title

by Leslie Turk

No major college football program in the country has fewer bragging rights than Florida International.

No major college football program in the country has fewer bragging rights than Florida International.

The Golden Panthers didn't join the NCAA's top classification until 2005, stepping up from the Division I-AA ranks, and it was only four years ago that FIU finally snapped a 23-game losing streak. The Panthers are still better known nationally for an ugly 2006 brawl against Miami that drew unwanted national attention, and a cloud of NCAA sanctions hung over the program that coach Mario Cristobal inherited in 2007.

Its all-time record heading into last season was ghastly 24-68, including a 3-9 mark in 2009 when many thought the Panthers were ready to turn the corner. And, prior to last fall, FIU had to deal with tragedy when running back Kendall Berry was stabbed to death on campus.

Fast forward 12 months, and the Panthers are picked to win the Sun Belt Conference football title.

FIU stood atop the league's Monday coaches-poll announcement by a hefty margin over Troy, which has won or shared the league title each of the last five seasons. The Panthers, who shared the crown with the Trojans last year, had 75 points and five of the nine first-place votes while Troy had 66 and two first-place votes.

The only good news for UL's football squad was that the Ragin' Cajuns were picked ahead of one team. The Cajuns were eighth in the poll of the league's head coaches with 26 points, ahead of Florida Atlantic (20). UL also had a grand total of one player standout tight end Ladarius Green picked to the all-conference squad.

New Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth appears Tuesday on what suffices for football press day in the Sun Belt (a video and teleconference). Monday, meanwhile, was FIU's day in the sun after the Panthers' surprising late-season run last year.

"This validates a four-year body of work," Cristobal said Monday during the teleconference. "There's a lot of hard work and countless hours that go into this and it makes it very rewarding, but it also makes you hungry for more."

Cristobal was referring mostly to last season, when FIU finished 6-6 in the regular season and went 6-2 in the Sun Belt, taking a pivotal 52-35 November win over Troy that was part of a 374-point season  far and away the most the Panthers had ever scored. To go with all those points, FIU led the Sun Belt in total defense and scoring defense.

That seventh win came in FIU's first-ever bowl game, when Jack Griffin's 34-yard final-play field goal provided a 34-32 win over Toledo in the Detroit-based Little Caesars Bowl. Before that kick, and two key pass plays in the final minute that set up the field goal, the Panthers had never experienced a winning season.

"It's the first time we really ever tasted any success," Cristobal said. "Before that we had been battling human nature as much as anything else."

FIU lost its four non-conference games last year to start the season but were competitive in all but one against a slate that included two nine-win teams (Texas A&M and Maryland) and one eight-win team (Pittsburgh). Still, FIU was 0-4 entering conference play.

"Our coaches did a great job of keeping us grounded and focused," Cristobal said.

A season-ending one-point loss to Middle Tennessee cost FIU the outright title. The Panthers, though, still wrangled the bowl berth and came back from a 24-7 third-quarter deficit in Detroit thanks to wide out T. Y. Hilton's stunning fourth-down hook-and-lateral run that set up the field goal.

Hilton was the league's Offensive Player of the Year after recording 1,100 yards from scrimmage, and was named as co-preseason offensive player of the year in Monday's announcement. FIU had five players named to the all-league team, with Hilton named as both a wide out and return specialist.

"Our guys realize what an opportunity we have," Cristobal said one FIU definitely hasn't had before.

Sun Belt Conference 2011 Football

Preseason Coaches Poll

Team                      Points

1. Florida International (5)            75

2. Troy (2)                                   66

T3. Middle Tennessee                    54

T3. UL Monroe                              54

5. Arkansas State (1)                    49

6. North Texas                              33

7. Western Kentucky (1)                28

8. UL Lafayette                              26

9. Florida Atlantic                           20

First-place votes in parenthesis.