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December 23, 2010
Mario Cristobal has almost 100 college kids, almost all from Florida, pumped to spend a week in Detroit at the end of December.
With what it took to get Florida International into its first bowl game, convincing a bunch of Florida guys to enjoy the Motor City in the middle of winter should be easy.
In 2007, Cristobal took over a program that admittedly wasn't fully prepared for a move to major-college football. FIU, a massive commuter school (almost 41,000 students) in west Miami, didn't play its first game until 2002, but the football program already has endured NCAA probation, scholarship losses because of poor academic performance, an on-field brawl with Miami and the murder of a player on campus.
The first positive notes were sounded this season. Thanks to a dominating 17-point win at Troy in which it rushed for 448 yards, FIU tied the Trojans for the league title and has advanced to the first bowl in school history. The Panthers (6-6) meet Toledo (8-4) in Sunday's Little Caesars Bowl in Detroit. If the Panthers win, they will have the first winning season in school history.
"It hasn't taken me by surprise," FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said. "I think it's taken the university by surprise."
Beyond the fan base, FIU snuck up on a pair of opponents to start this season. The Golden Panthers led in the fourth quarter against Rutgers at home and Texas A&M in College Station but fell short twice. FIU missed a potential go-ahead field goal against Rutgers and allowed the Aggies to score 21 in the fourth quarter. That was part of a 0-4 start -- all against Big Six opponents. But FIU regrouped once league play began.
"When we played North Texas [on Oct. 16], when we got out of the non-conference games, we said this is our second season and that we need to get things right," said junior wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, the Sun Belt's player of the year.
Hilton has been the program's transformative player. Hilton, a 5-foot-10, 183-pounder from Miami Springs High, decided to stay local to play his college ball and made an immediate impact by catching 41 passes for 1,013 yards as a freshman in 2008. That season, he caught seven touchdown passes, rushed for two scores, threw a TD passes and reached the end zone on a punt and kickoff return.
After an injury-riddled sophomore season -- FIU went 3-9 in '09 -- that nonetheless included a kickoff return for a TD at Alabama, Hilton this season has 56 receptions for 816 yards and five touchdowns and has rushed for 278 yards and four scores. He also once again has scored on a kickoff return.
"The biggest thing is you need someone to get you over the hump," Cristobal said. "All of the sudden, you've got a local guy right down the road who could go a number of places. He comes over to FIU and becomes a freshman All-America and wins conference player of the year. He has a great NFL future."
If getting FIU to a bowl game was a tall task, the next will be to get the student body to embrace the program.
FIU, which was founded in 1965, has the fourth-largest enrollment in the state of Florida, after UCF, Florida and USF, and has one of the 25 biggest enrollments in the nation. The enrollment numbers are on par with numerous national powers, but only 15 percent of FIU's students live on campus. And despite the large number of FIU graduates, the program's travel party to Ford Field figures to be embarrassingly low. As of Dec. 16, the athletic department had sold only "a few hundred tickets" to the game, the Miami Herald reported, and it was expected that the final tally would be less than 1,000.
Perhaps the lack of fervor shouldn't be that big a surprise. FIU started its program from scratch in 2002, playing the first three seasons as an FCS independent. FIU moved up to the FBS ranks in 2005, becoming full-fledged Sun Belt members at the same time.
Former NFL quarterback Don Strock was the first coach, and while his name recognition helped in the early days, the program languished. After the winless season in 2006, FIU hired Cristobal off the staff at Rutgers. Cristobal is a graduate of Miami's Columbus High and a former player and assistant at Miami.
Still, the hits kept coming. The NCAA docked the Panthers nine scholarships because of a poor performance in the Academic Progress Rate. In 2008, the NCAA placed FIU on four years' probation when it found the school misapplied enrollment and financial-aid rules, transfer requirements and eligibility rules. In short, when FIU moved into FBS, a too-small compliance staff and academic support group could not keep up.
"The administration was very ambitious and courageous in moving to Division I football," Cristobal said. "But I think there were things that they weren't ready for at the time."
As recently as 2007, FIU lacked football meeting rooms.
"We were forced to get into classrooms to watch film, and then all a sudden a physics class would show up," Cristobal said. "It was almost a high school-type facility, with less equipment."
FIU has increased its compliance staff from two to four, hired an APR specialist and beefed up its academic support. But even as FIU made strides, the most tragic news came last spring, when running back Kendall Berry was stabbed to death on campus March 25 after a verbal dispute with another student, coincidentally a former FIU football walk-on.
This season has showed that FIU can overcome trouble, but can it become a legitimate football program, one that appeals to the casual fan, in south Florida? Miami, with its rich recent history of success, struggles to attract fans. If a five-time national championship program has attendance woes, what hope does a Sun Belt program have?
"It takes time," Cristobal said. "We're doing all the right things. And now we've taken a step. We set a new standard. You open up a lot of doors and you open up a lot of eyes."
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
FIU rush offense vs. Toledo rush defense: Darriet Perry and Darrian Mallary split carries for FIU and have combined for 1,376 yards. Perry has had a nose for the end zone, with 14 rushing touchdowns. Outside of a 422-yard gashing by Northern Illinois, Toledo's run defense has been solid. The Rockets' other 11 opponents rushed for an average of 104 yards. LBs Archie Donald and Dan Molls were first and second, respectively, in the MAC in tackles with 267 stops combined. Edge: Toledo.
FIU pass offense vs. Toledo pass defense: Hilton can be a game-changer as a receiver, running back and return man. He has 56 receptions for 816 yards and four touchdowns and averages 14.5 yards per catch, and his presence helped Greg Ellingson catch 36 passes for 546 yards with five touchdowns. Mississippi State transfer Wes Carroll was turnover-prone early in the season, but he improved late, completing 72 percent of his passes in the past five games. Toledo has a ball-hawking defense that has intercepted the most passes (19) in the MAC. Donald and Molls are tied with CB Desmond Marrow for the team lead with three each. Toledo has a good pass rush, but Carroll has been well-protected. Edge: FIU.
Toledo rush offense vs. FIU rush defense: Adonis Thomas leads Toledo with 905 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and his best games have come in the second half of the season. FIU led the Sun Belt in rush defense, at 157.4 yards per game, which is only 68th nationally. FIU has held just two foes to fewer than 150 rushing yards. Edge: Toledo.
Toledo pass offense vs. FIU pass defense: Page (94 catches, 1,081 yards, eight TDs) is a big-time threat, but no other wide receiver has more than 16 catches. Starting QB Austin Dantin has missed all or part of the past four games with an injury, but he could play. Backup Terrence Owens has thrown for 1,112 yards, with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, and he's been more effective than Dantin, who is a better runner. FIU had the top passing efficiency defense in the Sun Belt, led by CB Anthony Gaitor and FS Jonathan Cyprien. This is a good group, one that's athletic and isn't afraid to lay the wood. FIU also has a good pass rush, though Toledo's line has done a nice job protecting the passer. Edge: FIU.
FIU special teams vs. Toledo special teams: Don't step away from the TV during punts and kickoffs. Page has three kickoff returns for touchdowns this season and a 29.1-yard career average; Hilton has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, including one this season, when he is averaging 27.5 yards per attempt. Beyond Page, though, Toledo's special teams are lacking. The Rockets were 115th nationally in net punting and were just 5-of-13 on field goals. FIU was last in the Sun Belt in punting, but the Panthers were 15-of-18 on field goals. Both are weak in punt coverage; Toledo has been excellent in kickoff coverage and FIU solid in that category. Edge: FIU.
FIU coaches vs. Toledo coaches: Mario Cristobal is in his fourth season at FIU and may have taken over the worst FBS program in the nation. FIU's losing streak reached 23 games before it won the final game of Cristobal's first season. This season, the Panthers could have packed it in after back-to-back heartbreakers to start the season -- FIU led in the fourth quarter against Rutgers and Texas A&M before crumbling. That led to a 0-4 start, but the Panthers rebounded strongly once league play began, including a rout of host Troy, the league's standard-bearer for the past few seasons. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins takes full advantage of all the speed he has on his side of the ball. Tim Beckman is in his second season at Toledo, and he already has the Rockets back near the top of the MAC after a precipitous fall. He has a defensive background, and it has showed in his short time on the job. Beckman and Toledo beat Cristobal and FIU 41-31 last season in Miami. Edge: Even.
X-factor: Watch Carroll's interception total. He threw 11 interceptions in the first eight games, but he threw only two picks and completed better than 70 percent of his passes in the past four games. Now, Carroll faces a team that excels in turnover margin. Toledo is plus-14 on turnovers this season, thanks to 19 interceptions.
FIU will win if: The Panthers must limit the damage by Page. He'll make an impact, but FIU can't let him take over. He's a dynamic receiver and kickoff returner, and he also threw three touchdown passes this season.
Toledo will win if: The quarterback(s) must play a solid game. Owens made his first start on national TV against Northern Illinois, a 65-30 Huskies romp that sealed the MAC West title. How will Owens respond in his second game on a national stage? FIU's defense led the Sun Belt and will be one of the fastest Toledo has seen this season.
Olin Buchanan: FIU 27, Toledo 21
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.