by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

To paraphrase the old theme song to the long-ago The Jeffersons sitcom...”Movin’ on up, to C----USA!”

So it goes for upwardly-mobile Florida International University, which prepares for a climb up the college football food chain when it moves from its Sun Belt digs into the higher-profile (how much higher, we’re not sure) Conference USA for next season.

Although we still think it would be quite a kick if the Golden Panthers decided to make Sherman Hemsley their new spokesperson for athletics.

The question that many are asking in the Miami area is how FIU managed to maneuver itself into a new and improved league while nearby Florida Atlantic remains embedded in the lower-rent Sun Belt. We’ll get more deeply into those dynamics in the second of our two-part metro Miami Sun Belt preview as we look at the Boca Raton-based Owls in our next update. Although the answer is basically that FAU showed little, if any, interest in joining up with C-USA, instead aiming (perhaps foolishly) for what it feels is a bigger target in the Big East. Meanwhile, neighbor FIU has always had C-USA on its wish list.

Granted, it won’t be the same Conference USA that the Golden Panthers join next fall, with in-state UCF and several others switching affiliations to the Big East. Still, the move is a step up for the Golden Panthers, as the Sun Belt will continue to remain a few notches beneath CUSA, which also heisted North Texas from the Belt for next year.

Obviously, CUSA values the larger metro areas serviced by FIU and UNT, and desperately wants a presence in Texas and Florida. To uphold their end of the bargain, the Golden Panthers are embarking upon another expansion to their stadium (now called Alfonso Field at FIU Stadium), upping the capacity to 25,000 this fall, with potential for further upgrades down the road.

Of course, what FIU backers really dream about is keeping 6th-year HC Mario Cristobal in tow until the Golden Panthers move into their higher-rent neighborhood next year. Which might be easier said than done, for Cristobal has become a familiar name in the annual coaching carousel. Most recently, Cristobal seemed destined for Rutgers last January after Greg Schiano somewhat surprisingly took the Tampa Bay Bucs NFL job. At the last moment, however, Cristobal had a change of heart and decided to stay in the Miami area.

Cristobal has had other suitors over the past few years (Penn State also reportedly making a call last December) and his job prospects will undoubtedly continue to be a topic of conversation each offseason, especially with his well-established contacts in talent-rich Florida (Cristobal took over the Golden Panthers in 2007 after a three-year stint on Larry Coker’s Miami Hurricanes staff and is a local product, having played for Dennis Erickson’s Miami teams in the early ‘90s).

Indeed, we’re a bit surprised Cristobal remains at FIU, although he is reportedly quite comfy with his current arrangement in his Miami-area stomping grounds, where his status as the first Cuban-American head coach in major college football carries a lot of weight.

And it’s no wonder Cristobal is in such high demand, having resurrected the Golden Panthers after they hit rock bottom under program architect Don Strock in 2006, losing all 12 of their games and causing a serious black eye for the school when involved in an ugly on-field brawl with the cross-town Hurricanes in mid-October. At that point, the future of the program was even touch-and-go, as a vocal movement to discontinue participation in the sport was gaining momentum on campus. In took Cristobal until the final game of the 2007 campaign for the Golden Panthers to break what had mushroomed into a 23-game losing streak, but the proverbial corner was being turned. It’s almost a bit surreal that FIU now has the look of a bowl regular after back-to-back postseason invitations in 2010 & ‘11, beating Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl in the former and qualifying for the Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl last season, where the Golden Panthers lost to Marshall by a 20-10 count.

Consecutive winning seasons (7-6 and 8-5) suggest Cristobal knows what he’s doing. And 2012 could be even better, with 17 starters back in the fold from last year’s bowl qualifier. FIU is even a consensus pick to win the Sun Belt crown for the first time before it heads to CUSA next season.

But there are few question marks regarding a strike force that lost two of its best weapons to graduation, former Mississippi State transfer QB Wesley Carroll and homerun WR/kick returner T.Y. Hilton, the third-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in last April’s NFL Draft. Hilton’s dimension, in particular, could be a difficult one to replace, as he also helped FIU to the nation’s best net punt return average (15.93) in the country a year ago.

Cristobal and o.c. Tom Cramsey, however, are convinced that strong-armed soph QB Jake Medlock (left) can adequately fill Carroll’s role as the pilot of FIU’s spread after getting his feet wet a year ago in a late-season start in place of the hurting Carroll in the Shula Bowl vs. nearby FAU. Medlock completed 18 of 24 passes and ran for another 47 yards in the Golden Panthers’ 41-7 romp, and started again the next week at UL-Monroe before being KO’d with a minor shoulder injury. Still, Cristobal believes the seamless way in which Medlock stepped into the breach vs. the Owls suggests the soph has the chops for the starting assignment. Cover at the all-important position will be provided by untested RS frosh Loranzo Hammonds, who demonstrated potential explosiveness with a 69-yard TD run in the spring game (which unfortunately was called back), and electric true frosh E.J. Hilliard, who enrolled early and participated in spring drills.

Sources say that while Medlock’s spring work was not terribly convincing, it was to be expected as Cristobal and Cramsey fast-forwarded a more up-tempo pace to the offense, which will be using more no-huddle in the fall.

Belt observers suggest replacing Hilton might be a taller order than the QB situation, given Hilton’s extra dimensions as a kick returner and a runner on “orbit” sweeps on top of the long-ball threat he provided at WR when catching 72 passes a year ago. But Cristobal and Cramsey believe sr. Wayne Times (right), who caught 54 passes of his own last season and was also featured on the kickoff and punt return units, could emerge as a similar big-play threat after a star-studded performance in spring. Plenty of downfield speed exists in all four of the wideout positions in the spread, with true frosh D’Andre Jasper, a Miami product from Jackson high, reminding many Belt insiders of a younger Hilton.

The strength of the strike force is likely up front, where Criostobal believes he has the best line in his six years at the helm of the program. Four OL starters return this fall for what should be a very cohesive unit, with 314-lb. Sr. LY Caylin Hauptmann an honors candidate. Their coordination also allows wide lanes to be opened for the RBs in the FIU spread, with jr. slasher Kedrick Rhodes (left; 1149 YR in 2011) taking full advantage. Former Syracuse transfer Jeremiah Harden and punishing RS frosh Shane Coleman provide ample backfield depth.

In case the offense bogs down in the red zone, reliable sr. PK Jack Griffin is usually able to salvage at least three points after hitting 22 of 26 FG tries a year ago. Griffin, who also booted the game-winning field goal on the final play of the 34-32 Little Caesars Bowl win in 2010 over Toledo, has yet to miss in 81 career PAT attempts, either.

It’s on defense, however, where the Golden Panthers rate a clear edge on conference foes after a very un-Belt-like performance a year ago when ranking 14th nationally in scoring defense (19.5 ppg) and 30th in overall defense, numbers usually not associated with Sun Belt stop units.

Best of all for Cristobal and d.c. Todd Orlando, all starters from last December’s Beef O’Brady’s Bowl game at The Trop against Marshall are back in the fold.

Speed and athleticism, along with experience (all starters juniors and seniors), abound on the stop unit. The defensive front is full of playmakers after contributing to solid rush defense (only 3.3 ypc) and sack totals (35, tied for 15th nationally) a year ago. Imposing DTs Andre Pound and Isame Faciane are roadblocks in the middle of the line, while sr. DE Tourek Williams will force double-teams from opposing offensive linemen on passing downs.

All starters are also back in a hard-hitting, all-senior LB corps that might have uncovered another force in spring when sr. OLB Jordan Hunt was the star of scrimmaging and the spring game. Punishing MLB Winston Fraser (right, in action vs. Marshall in last December's Beef O'Brady's St. Pete Bowl) earned all-Belt honors a year ago.

If there is a concern on the platoon, it’s on the corners where juniors Jose Cheeseborough and Sam Miller both lack size (each generously listed at 5'9), which might have contributed to some of the big-play breakdowns that occasionally haunted the stop unit a year ago. Miller, however, is a ball-hawking playmaker who recorded a pair of picks as well as three sacks on blitzes a year ago, while big-hitting sr. SS Jonathon Cyprien (left) is another all-Belt returnee.

The non-conference portion of the 2012 schedule is somewhat challenging, with dates vs. UCF and Louisville, each of which is seeking revenge on FIU from losses a year ago. The Golden Panthers open September 1 at Duke, as FIU looks to reverse a tight 31-27 loss to the Blue Devils at Miami last season. Dates vs. the Cardinals and Terry Bowden’s Akron will be taking place in friendly territory at Alfonso Field, as will be a Sun Belt showdown vs. Gus Malzahn’s Arkansas State in a Thursday night special on October 4. The previous week (September 29), the Golden Panthers travel to Lafayette to face Louisiana in another Sun Belt crucial as Cristobal’s team look to reverse bitter losses to both the Ragin’ Cajuns and Red Wolves from a year ago. With slate so front-loaded, we'll know by midseason if this is going to be a special autumn for the Golden Panthers.

Note the rare Sun Belt defensive nous of Cristobal’s FIU has resulted in a 17-9 “under” mark the past two seasons. The Golden Panthers are also 7-3 as an underdog since 2010.

Summary...In Sun Belt terms, FIU certainly appears loaded, with a boatload of returnees back from last year’s Beef O’Brady’s Bowl entry, including every defensive starter from that postseason date vs. Marshall. If soph QB Justin Medlock can replace departed starter Wesley Carroll as seamlessly as HC Mario Cristobal believes, and if a big-play wideout dimension (watch sr. Wayne Times) surfaces in wake of T.Y. Hilton’s graduation, the Golden Panthers definitely look like the team to beat in the Belt. Now, whether FIU can hold on to Cristobal after another expected bowl visit remains to be seen, as the coach is probably going to have a chance to say “no” again to interested suitors before the Golden Panthers make their move into CUSA next year. It’s not a stretch to assume that one of these times, Cristobal is eventually going to say “yes” to one of these offers. Meanwhile, they'll enjoy the good times while they can at FIU.


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