by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Concluding our preview of Conference USA, the Eastern half of the loop comes under examination. As in our Western analysis, teams are ranked in order of predicted finish, with 2012 straight-up and pointspread records included.


At first glance it appears as if it is going to be as hard to select a favorite from a jumbled back of contenders in the Eastern half of Conference USA as it was to pick a winner in the old Demolition Derby from the Islip Speedway on Long Island, a yearly feature during Jim McKay’s long-ago days on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Upon further inspection, however, the most compelling case can probably be made for Ruffin McNeill’s East Carolina (2012 SUR 8-5, PSR 6-7) as the team to beat in the East. While we maintain that the “returning starter” angle so overplayed by most preview magazines is often a false indicator, we’re apt to make an exception in the case of the Pirates, who return players who accounted for 85% of the points and 78% of the tackles from the 2012 team that was good enough to win eight games and qualify for a bowl.

Interestingly, ECU is doing it a bit differently than envisioned since enlisting alum McNeill for the top spot prior to the 2010 season. McNeill’s background was that of a defensive coach (indeed, he served as Texas Tech’s d.c. for the final years of Mike Leach’s successful run in Lubbock), but “D” has often been lacking in Greenville since McNeill’s arrival.

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The offense, however, has more than picked up the slack as it did last fall when jr. QB Shane Carden emerged as a very effective on-field pilot for McNeill’s Texas Tech-like spread. Unlike many of his erratic counterparts in CUSA, Carden was a model of consistency in 2012, completing 66% of his passes while passing for 3116 yards and personally accounting for 31 of ECU’s 45 TDs a year ago.

Carden is back and so are his primary support weapons in skittish sr. RB Vintavious Cooper, a former juco who burst upon the scene last fall and gained 1049 YR while scoring 8 TDs and bailing out a ground game that was minus oft-injured Reggie Bullock for most of the season, earning CUSA Newcomer of the Year honors along the way, and glue-fingered WR Justin Hardy, a sure-handed target who caught 88 passes a year ago and has 1763 yards worth of receptions over the past two seasons.

The concerns offensively are filling graduation-created gaps for the other WR spots in ECU’s four-receiver formations (although some experienced components, such as rangy 6'8 Justin Jones, who has 12 TD catches among his 58 career receptions, remain on hand), and the status of Cooper, who missed spring practice due to a drug-related suspension. Though most expect Cooper to be reinstated this fall, there is a possibility he won’t, or could be forced to sit out some games. If that’s the case, this year’s juco RB arrival, Terrell Lane, might be getting more work than expected. Four returning starters from an accomplished OL figure to smooth any rough spots in the RB rotation.

The not-quite-so-rotund-as-before McNeill, however, was once again not satisfied with the performance of a defense that allowed 32 ppg in 2012 and was particularly leaky against opposing aerial attacks (ranking 107th in pass defense), so he has switched coordinators for the second time in three seasons, jettisoning Brian Mitchell after a poor effort in the New Orleans Bowl loss vs. Louisiana. Enlisted has been one-time Pirate DB coach Rick Smith, who had followed former ECU HC Skip Holtz to South Florida, and now tasked with altering the defensive scheme. Smith’s plan is to implement more multiple looks and more judicious use of blitz packages from base 3-4 alignments after Mitchell’s platoon was too often burned for its reckless tactics.

Eight starters on “D” remain in the mix from 2012, however, so the unit has experience, especially at the safety spots manned by srs. Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson. Magazu, perhaps the top performer on the platoon last fall and recipient of All-CUSA honors, missed spring with a back injury, however, and his healthy return to action will be key.

The stop unit remains speed-based if a bit undersized. It is hoped that Smith’s new schemes could also unleash sr. DE Derrell Johnson, a four-year starter who led the team with 7 sacks last fall.

Spread-wise, please note that McNeill’s’s ECU has been struggling on the road, dropping 7 of its last 9 vs. the line away from friendly Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. No matter, in the Pirates’ swansong from CUSA before enlisting with the AAC next year, they look to be the team to beat in the East.

Of the various Sun Belt refugees who have taken up residence in CUSA in 2013, the most likely to make an immediate impact is Rick Stockstill’s Middle Tennessee (SUR 8-4, PSR 8-4), which was good enough to whip eventual Sun Bowl winner Georgia Tech last season and win eight games, yet still get overlooked by bowl sponsors.

Indeed, if there is one Sun Belt newcomer that could have benefited from CUSA's multiple bowl tie-ins last year, and could benefit from the new association in 2013, it’s the Blue Raiders. There was considerable conjecture that the announcement to bolt the Belt for CUSA just two days before the regular-season finale vs. Arkansas State (a game in which the Blue Raiders lost, 45-0, not enhancing their candidacy) might have had something to do with a perceived bowl snub, as MTSU was the only one of five bowl-eligible Sun Belt squads to not receive a postseason invitation. A 7-5 Western Kentucky side, which lost at home vs. the Blue Raiders and endured a late-season 3-game losing streak (as opposed to a 4-game winning surge in November by MTSU), was instead awarded with a berth in the Little Caesar’s Bowl, seemingly at the expense of the Blue Raiders.

While Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson insisted otherwise, it certainly looked as if there was some bias working against MTSU when it came time to promote it, instead of WKU, for the bowl spot in Detroit vs. Central Michigan, which beat the Hilltoppers, 24-21.

Regardless, 2012 marked an important recovery in the career of HC Stockstill, the former Bobby Bowden QB at Florida State who not long ago was rumored for greener pastures (Stockstill reportedly turned down the East Carolina job in 2010 to stay in Murfreesboro). Following a pair of disappointing seasons that included a 2-10 face plant in 2011, regional sources suspected Stockstill was under the gun a year ago.

But that 8-4 mark, even though it wasn’t rewarded with a bowl bid, has at least rehabilitated the reputation of Stockstill, who thinks his team might make a splash in its new CUSA digs.

The return of nine offensive starters, including strong-armed QB Logan Kilgore, fuels much of the optimism. Kilgore, now a senior, has started games since his freshman campaign of 2010 and passed for 34 TDs and more than 4800 yards the past two seasons.

Complementary weapons also have credentials, especially soph RB Jordan Parker, who stepped in for the injured Benny “Bam Bam” Cunningham last fall and proceeded to set a Blue Raider frosh rushing mark with 851 yards in just six starts. There is also experienced depth at the RB spots, an important development for Stockstill, who incorporated more West Coast concepts into his offense a year ago as opposed to the pure spread philosophy in order to generate some much-needed balance.

Indeed, MTSU evolved into a rare Sun Belt run-focused offense last season when gaining 177 ypg on the ground, ranking 45th in the nation (extremely good for a Belt rep), which ought to serve the Blue Raiders well in CUSA, where few teams bother to run, either. Four starters are also back along the OL which kept Kilgore remarkably well-protected last season when MTSU ranks 2nd nationally in sacks allowed (only 7!). The return of WR Tavares Jefferson, who sat out almost all of 2012 with hamstring problems after leading MTSU in pass receptions with 51 catches in 2011, will help a deep receiving corps now minus Kilgore’s favorite target from 2012, Anthony Amos (72 catches). Redshirt frosh WR Terry Pettis is also expected to make an impact this fall.

Co-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was able to somewhat stabilize the MTSU “D” in his first year on the job in 2012 after seven years of d.c. duty in the SEC with South Carolina and Ole Miss. Finding more pass rush will be a priority after the Blue Raiders rarely brought much pressure a year ago, as their sickly sack total (just 14 in 12 games, ranking 109th in the country) would attest.

The loss of six starters from last year’s platoon is not a big deal because Nix and co-d.c. Steve Ellis rotated personnel last season; six other defenders not officially listed as “returning starters” indeed started a game last fall. But the pass rush deficiencies contributed to a slew of long completions a year ago; how Nix and Ellis best unleash hybrid DE/LB Leighton Gasque will be an important development this fall, especially vs. the many pass-happy CUSA attacks. On the plus side, soph SS Kevin Byard flashed enough promise last fall to be honored on frosh A-A teams.

Stockstill’s better teams in Murfreesboro have proven formidable over the past seven years, and the Blue Raiders’ recovery a year ago (also including a solid 8-4 mark vs. the number, the same as the SU record) suggests Stockstill has the program back on the right track after dropping 18 of 25 spread decisions the previous two years. Burdened on occasion by overhype in the Belt the past few seasons, MTSU has no such concerns in its new league. And with more bowl opportunities in CUSA, we doubt the Blue Raiders get overlooked at selection time as they did a year ago in the Belt.

The CUSA logjam continues as we evaluate a projected top five in the Eastern half of the loop. Lots of questions remain among a trio of teams we suspect could make a run at ECU or MTSU.

A measured vote, however, is due for Garrick McGee’s UAB (SUR 3-9, PSR 5-7) to make a move up the East table this fall. Although there is plenty of reason to discount the Blazers as, apparently, the local Birmingham folk do by avoiding games at the historic Legion Field, admittedly not in the best area of town; besides, this is still heavy Crimson Tide territory. The empty-seat count at home would probably lead CUSA in attendance. But we and other regional observers noted the seeds of progress planted last season by McGee, a well-regarded assistant as Bobby Petrino’s o.c. and QB coach at Arkansas before taking the UAB job for 2012.

Speaking of Petrino, for a while there was speculation last year that Arkansas might look to lure McGee back to Fayetteville to replace Petrino after he ran afoul of administrators due to an off-field scandal. To his credit, however, McGee showed no interest and honored his commitment to UAB. The Razorback assignment might have been a bit hard to handle in wake of the Petrino controversy anyway; rest assured McGee will fly across the radar of plenty of higher-profile destinations if he can turn around the Blazers’ wayward ship and elevate the program from second-tier status in modest CUSA surroundings.

That might not be easy, as UAB has only made one appearance in a bowl (the 2004 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, losing to host Hawaii) in its history as a program. Which is still relatively new after its birth in the ‘90s under former HC Watson Brown, who steered the Blazers into CUSA and the FBS division and experienced limited success. But after Brown’s departure following the 2006 season, the Blazers went nowhere in five campaigns under former Georgia assistant Neil Callaway, and the bowl drought is now approaching a decade as McGee begins his second season in Birmingham.

Though UAB was too imbalanced last season on offense (ranking 109th in rushing at just 110 ypg), plenty of playmakers remain in the mix, which includes a pair of QBs with starting experience. Those two, soph Austin Brown (who earned All-CUSA Frosh honors last season) and sr. Jonathan Perry, can both move out of the pocket. Perry started eight games in 2011 before being beaten out early last season by Brown, who finished with 2673 passing yards, but spring work (when Brown missed some action while recuperating from offseason ankle and grpoin procedures) suggested that Perry is going to have a chance to win his job back in fall camp before the August 31 opener at Troy.

Whatever the result, just having a pair of established QBs is the sort of luxury most CUSA counterparts don’t enjoy.

Meanwhile, punishing jr. RB Darrin Reaves bloomed into an unlikely feature back last fall, rushing for more than 100 yards in three of the final five games and becoming only the second runner in Blazer history to eclipse the 1000-yard mark (he finished with 1037 YR and 13 TDs). There is hope for improvement along an OL that returns four starters, although run and pass blocking (the Blazers ranked 82nd nationally in sacks despite fielding QBs with wheels) must improve.

Another important playmaker still in the mix is senior WR Jackie Williams, arguably one of the top wideouts in CUSA and with 140 career pass receptions on his ledger. Getting Williams into the endzone a bit more often (he only has 4 TDs among all of those career catches) will be an important factor in any Blazer upgrades this fall.

Unfortunately, the Blazer “D” was its usual spotty self a year ago when conceding almost 38 ppg (ranking 111th in the country), but some experimenting late last season has led to schematic changes for 2013 that d.c. Reggie Johnson hopes will pay dividends. Specifically, UAB employed some very unorthodox looks to slow down go-go Marshall in a mid-November game at Legion Field, radically altering the base 4-3 alignments while often lining up with just one or two down linemen to combat Herd QB Rakeem Cato and his nation’s leading pass offense. The results were encouraging enough that Johnson will likely switch to 3-4 looks this fall, taking advantage of roster depth at the LB spots.

If the plan works, the Blazers will probably credit some extra pressure they’ll get from the edge in speedy soph OLBs Jake Ganus (a former WR) and Derek Slaughter, each also nimble enough to drop into deep pass coverage.

The Blazers had a few highlight moments last fall which caused regional onlookers to take notice, such as pushing Ohio State in Columbus, alnmost outscoring eventual league champ Tulsa, and beating potent Marshall in a shootout. We’re not sure UAB can get to a bowl (non-league trips to SEC country at LSU and Vanderbilt won’t help), but it looks to us like the arrow is pointing up at Legion Field.

A coach at certain CUSA ports of call (like, say, David Bailiff at Rice) can feel pretty secure about his job if he gets his team to an occasional bowl. Standards, however, are a bit higher at Marshall (SUR 4-7, PSR 4-7-1), which did a lot of winning in its days as a lower-division power and made a rather seamless jump to the then-called D-I in the late ‘90s with exciting teams led by once-in-a-generation WR Randy Moss.

But after dominating the MAC for a few years, the program moved up the ladder into CUSA, where the ride has been a bit more bumpy...not something the fan base in Huntington has been willing to accept.

Thus, Thundering Herd HC Doc Holliday (just one bowl in three seasons and a 17-20 overall mark) is on alert after his team exasperated followers by not playing any defense last fall and missing a postseason assignment. As a reminder that Marshall fans are a bit more demanding than at most CUSA locales, note that Holliday predecessor Mark Snyder was forced to resign, even after his last Herd team qualified for the Little Caesar’s Bowl in 2008, following a succession of so-so seasons. Rest assured Holliday is quite aware of this bit of recent program history.

Marshall also fancies itself as more upwardly-mobile than most other CUSA entries, and entertained ideas about moving into the Big East before it morphed into the AAC on the football side. Sources say Herd administrators still have their antennae up for any future opportunities that might arise elsewhere.

That fundamentally-poor defense, however, makes it difficult for us to project a real breakthrough in the fall. Ranking 119th in scoring defense (a whopping 43.1 ppg) was partly due to the ping-pong, back-and-forth nature of Marshall’s 2012 games caused by the high-scoring offense. But the Herd still lacked playmakers on the stop unit, and we’re not sure that dynamic has changed much for this fall.

Sensing he needed to make some changes, and a sure sign that he is feeling some heat, Holliday revamped his defensive staff in the offseason, enlisting Chuck Heater, once upon a time a featured RB for some of Bo Schembechler’s best Michigan teams from 1972-74, as the new coordinator. Heater spent the last couple of years on Steve Addazio’s staff at Temple but is a well-traveled assistant with several high-profile career stops.

Along with an entirely new defensive staff, Heater revamped the platoon in spring, installing a nickel package as the base alignment for the stop unit, maybe not a bad idea considering all of the high-flying CUSA attacks that Marshall is likely to see this fall (and couldn’t stop a year ago).

Looking to move his best athletes into the secondary, Heater switched soph OLB D.J. Hunter, one of the few bright spots on last year’s “D” when named a Frosh All-American, to strong safety in spring. Plus, DB Corey Tindal, who sat out last season as an academic non-qualifier, moved immediately into the starting lineup (as the nickel back himself) in spring. But Marshall leaked fore and aft in 2012, also allowing over 200 ypg on the ground, so upgrades along the defensive front are also necessary. Which might not be easy after two-year starting DT Marques Allen left the program for Cincinnati in the offseason as a graduate transfer. Indeed, Heater has his work cut out this fall.

Fortunately for Holliday and the Herd, they will like their chances in many of the anticipated shootouts thanks to the omnipotent offense led by exciting jr. QB Cato, who only led the nation in passing yards last season as the Herd gained a whopping 365 ypg thru the air. There were some tweaks in the strike force during spring practice when Holliday stressed Cato, whose feet are not in concrete, to get out of the pocket more and let his legs do some extra work after getting sacked too many times (29) a year ago. Holliday figures that Cato can run well enough to cause opposing defenses to pause rather than simply defend the pass.

Marshall ran decently last season (169 ypg) but Holliday would like those numbers to improve, too, and does have his top four running backs from 2012 still in the fold. All-CUSA Frosh performer Kevin Grooms, a 168-pound scatback who gained 737 YR last season, paces the group, but he isn’t the sort of short-yardage specialist that Doc would like to uncover.

But don’t expect Marshall to morph into Air Force or Navy anytime soon, or expect Cato to suddenly stop avoiding his favorite target, jr. slotback Tommy Shuler, who caught 110 passes a year ago. Two other wideouts must be replaced, with Penn State transfer Shawney Kersey expected to make contributions.

The Herd, however, never won two games in a row last season, and failed to cover 5 of 6 spread decisions at home. No wonder the natives are restless. The schedule is palatable this fall, but that means Holliday will have few excuses if he misses another bowl. And if Holliday can’t plug the leaks in his defensive dike, his job security might become a bit restless, too.

We’re still wondering what happened to Southern Miss (SUR 0-12, PSR 3-9) a year ago. The Golden Eagles made a Felix Baumgartner-like drop from their school-record 12 wins and Hawaii Bowl success in 2011, when HC Larry Fedora decided to make the move to North Carolina. Many regional observers (plus ourselves) warned about the hiring of successor Ellis Johnson, a longtime and highly-decorated defensive coordinator yet with a very iffy track record in two attempts as a head coach earlier in his career. But neither we nor any of the other Johnson detractors likely saw last year's 0-12 SU mark coming down the tracks.

Realizing that Johnson is cut out for coordinator, and not head coaching, duties, USM relieved him of his post and went about hiring the guy who probably should have been tabbed the year before, Oklahoma State o.c. Todd Monken, as the new head coach.

Indeed, Monken fits the template at USM laid out by none other than Fedora, who also matriculated to Hattiesburg via Stillwater, where he coordinated potent offenses. Perhaps, then, we should simply give the Golden Eagles a mulligan for their miseries in 2012 after the biggest one-season drop in wins in college football history. USM couldn’t have been that bad in 2012, could it?

Johnson had some legit excuses related to injuries, especially at the QB spot, where five took turns taking snaps, combining for only 9 TD passes between them. But continuing the problematic theme, the performer among them who seemed to have the most upside, Anthony Alford, transferred to Ole Miss in the offseason.

Monken, however, plans to start anew with the same sort of spread offense used with great success at Ok State, and likely plans to give RS frosh Kyle Sloter, one of the few in the Golden Eagle program who didn’t take a snap behind center last fall, as the new triggerman. Another QB option is soph Ricky Loyd, who started two games a year ago before tearing an ACL, which kept him out of spring work. Whoever wins the job figures to outperform last year’s ineffective quintet, especially with the respected Monken also doubling as the QB coach. Recall how three different Oklahoma State signal-callers moved Monken’s Cowboy offense without a hitch last fall.

The fact there are only three projected returning starters on the "O" should not be a significant negative considering all of the problems endured last season; the Golden Eagles might as well start fresh with Monken. But losing four starters along the OL also means that a near-complete rebuild is in order up front.

For a supposed defensive mastermind, Johnson was not able to transmit much of that expertise to last year’s defense that sorely lacked playmakers (credited with only 15 takeaways and contributing to a lousy 115th ranking in TO margin), could not stop the run (208 ypg, ranking 108th) and allowed a whopping 38 ppg, buckling under the weight of offensive mistakes and ineptitude that would eventually impact the stop unit in a very negative manner.

Monken has decided to go back to the future with the defense, however, luring former Golden Eagle assistant David Duggan, who moved to North Carolina along with Fedora last season, as the new coordinator. Duggan was the co-d.c. at USM in 2011 when the Golden Eagles set an NCAA record for interceptions returned for TDs (8) and has some familiarity with the inherited personnel.

Duggan plans to operate out of 4-2-5 looks, with most of the DL and LB corps returning from a year ago, save for impactful DE Jamie Collins, one of the few bright spots for the Golden Eagles in 2012 and credited with 20 tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons. But Collins, a second-round NFL draft pick, spends this summer in the New England Patriots camp, not Hattiesburg. How sr. Octavius Thomas, reinstated after missing 2012 due to academic issues, fills Collins’ large shoes will be a key development this fall.

The Golden Eagle Nation is hoping that Monken can resurrect the program, and it’s hard to believe the team could have been as bad as that 0-12 mark a year ago. By default, there has to be improvement (it can’t get any worse, right?). But it remains to be seen how much damage the Johnson regime might have caused in that one wasted year. USM is hoping it gets a do-over with Monken in charge, but we’re not ready to predict a quick recovery or return to bowl action, especially with a brutal 3-game September stretch vs. Nebraska, Arkansas, and Boise State...all on the road.

We must admit to being somewhat surprised by Florida Atlantic (SUR 3-9, PSR 8-4) last fall. Perhaps because our expectations for the Owls were about the same as they are for us to ever break par at Pebble Beach. But even winning only 3 of 12 games, there seemed to be some progress at FAU, which had stumbled to 1-11 in the final year of the preceding Howard Schnellenberger regime.

Perhaps we prejudged the hire of HC Carl Pelini, a former Nebraska assistant and brother of Bo who proved an upgrade from the last few desultory seasons of Schnellenberger’s tenure, which likely endured for ceremonial and sentimental reasons in 2011 so old Howard, the architect of the program, could have one year to coach in the brand new FAU Stadium that had been his dream. While the jury is still out on Pelini, there were enough encouraging signs last fall (besides the 8-4 spread mark) to suggest his regime at least has a chance to last for a while.

It’s not much, but there is a little bit of momentum that the Owls bring as they move into their new CUSA neighborhood.

Last season, Pelini and o.c. Brian Wright had junked the Schnellenberger pro-style offense for a more updated spread that would produce more than 100 yards per game from the sluggish 2011 version. The passing game accounted for much of the upgrade, improving 80 yards per game over the previous year.

The question for FAU this fall is finding a suitable replacement for the graduated and underrated QB Graham Wilbert, who was better than serviceable for much of last season while completing 64% of his passes and tossing only 6 picks compared to 18 TDs. Nine of the ten receivers who caught ten passes or more last fall are still in the mix, led by rangy, 6'4 jr. William Dukes (63 catches in 2011). But who is getting them the ball this fall?

Spring work proved inconclusive, though most CUSA sources maintain that at some point, juco transfer Jacquez Johnson, a dual-threat QB, is going to get a chance. Holdover sr. Melvin German III, looking forward to getting an opportunity to pilot the spread, might have held a slim lead in spring, but Pelini and Wright are not going to announce their starter until fall camp, with jr. Stephen Curtis also in the mix. Whatever happens, CUSA insiders will not be surprised if Pelini uses more than one QB, or alternates, a definite possibility with Johnson’s mobility.

Recovery from the mess of the end of the Schnellenberger years is ongoing, however, and the Owls need to improve upon their anemic rushing stats (113 ypg, ranking 107th) to make an impression in CUSA. Which might be a chore with three new starters to be plugged in along the OL. High-stepping sr. RB Jonathan Wallace, however, did run with some flair when gaining 673 YR last all despite being slowed by hamstring issues the first half of the season, Wallace gained 479 YR in the last six games when FAU moved clear from early dates at Georgia and Alabama and into the Sun Belt portion of the slate.

On the other side of the ball, Pelini and d.c. Pete Rekstis were able to scheme some improvement from the FAU defense last year (leaping 20 spots in scoring defense stats), but the stop unit has a way to go before the Owls cause significant trouble in their new home league.

Specifically, Pelini needs to uncover some playmakers and locate a pass rush after FAU recorded only 12 sacks in 2012. Facing a higher-octane bunch of CUSA offenses could spell problems this fall if Pelini can’t find any answers. Unleashing sr. DE Cory Henry, who promised much early in his career but managed only two sacks all of 2012, will be a good place to start. And pressure has to originate from the defensive front in the Owls’ 4-3 looks.

Opponents spent most of their time running the ball down the Owls’ throats last fall when FAU ranked a poor 102nd in rush defense, but the pass defense was still better than expected (27th ranked nationally), and the secondary is loaded with upperclass experience. Three starters return in the DB corps, including both cornerbacks, honors candidate Keith Reaser and D’Joun Smith.

Still, it is asking a lot of a team that could only win three games as a member of the Sun Belt to do much better against what appears to be at least a slightly upgraded CUSA schedule. But if the Owls don’t get too beaten up by an opening three-game road stretch at Miami, East Carolina, and South Florida, and have a win or two by midseason, the slate eases up considerably down the stretch. And then, perhaps, Pelini develops some real momentum for the program to carry into 2014.

If there’s a flip side to those who complain about coaches getting paid too much, it’s the capricious other side of the business in which expectations get so out of hand that athletic directors believe they have to move out a coach after one underperforming year. Even so, we’re still wondering what could have possibly happened at Florida International (SUR 3-9, PSR 5-7) when the well-regarded and apparent up-and-comer HC Mario Cristobal was fired by AD Pete Garcia after last season’s 3-9 mark.

Admittedly, 3-9 was a disappointment for the Golden Panthers, as the program hoped to ride some momentum into its debut season in CUSA. But last year's slippage came on the heels of a pair of bowl invitations, which seemed about as far away from FIU when Cristobal was hired away from the Miami Hurricanes in 2007 as the new Marlins Stadium is for anyone trying to fight the southbound traffic on I-95 at rush hour to get to the ballpark. Remember, Cristobal inherited an 0-12 team and a program that was close to closing up shop after the negativity surrounding an on-field brawl with the Canes in ‘06.

Garcia’s actions and rationale simply made no sense last December and less sense today.

Remember those halcyon days for FIU football, when the young program was rising, winning, going to consecutive bowl games. Back when Mario Cristobal, home-grown hero, was "The Hot Young Coach" coveted by others but loyal to the city he loved?

Didn't hose heady days happen about a week ago?

Cristobal’s dismissal was unexpected, unfair and fraught with reckless impatience. Apparently, the autocratic Garcia thought his program was above and beyond an off-year and should be on an uninterrupted beeline to a national championship.

“We’ve gone backwards,” Garcia explained his decision.

Did Garcia have a memory? A short one, perhaps.

Just the year before, Cristobal’s Panthers had finished an 8-4 regular season and were preparing for a second consecutive bowl game. The year before that they’d shared the Sun Belt Conference title and won their bowl game. Cristobal had also been rewarded with a four-year contract extension, perhaps because overtures from Rutgers and Pittsburgh verified the rising stock of a bright young coaching mind.

Remember, too, that Cristobal inherited not only an 0-12 mess but NCAA sanctions not of his doing. But he worked through the lean, losing years and saw the program finally begin to gain stability, a local footprint, a bit of national credibility.

Then came the off-year Garcia could apparently not tolerate. That 3-9 record included five losses by eight points or fewer. Granted, the Golden Panthers struggled to replace homerun WR/KR T.Y. Hilton, who made quite an impression as a rookie with the Indianapolis Colts, but starting quarterback Jake Medlock and top running back Kedrick Rhodes also both missed big chunks of the season due to injury. Still, Garcia figured a team with a lot of seniors should overcome such things.

That’s why Cristobal, 42, Miami-born and the first Cuban-American head coach in NCAA Division I football, was dumped. (Don't feel too bad for Cristobal, however, picked up immediately by Nick Saban for his Alabama staff; expect Cristobal to soon get another head coaching chance.) And after AD Garcia's apparent desire to land old chum Butch Davis went awry, he went to the coaching scrap heap to uncover Ron Turner, Norv’s brother and a longtime offensive assistant in the NFL ranks but whose last head coaching adventure ended badly at Illinois, run out of Champaign-Urbana after the 2004 season.

The hire came out of the blue, as Turner seemed to have settled into the life of an NFL assistant, where he worked as the Tampa Bay Bucs’ QB coach last fall. We’re hardly convinced the FIU job is a step up from a prominent NFL assistant position.

Whatever, Turner has not wasted time shaking things up in Miami. In addition to eight new starters, including the entire OL, FIU will change to a pro-style/West Coast offensive scheme with QBs under center for all but a select few passing situations. Which is a major change from recent years when the Golden Panthers used shotgun snaps and spread looks for almost every offensive play.

Medlock is back in the fold and taking snaps in a traditional manner for the first time since high school, and reports indicate that the adjustment went smoothly in spring. Medlock, to his credit, tossed only two picks alongside his 13 TD passes in nine games last fall, and keeping mistakes to a minimum will be expected in the Turner offense. But the brand new OL could slow down the learning curve.

Meanwhile, sr. RB Kedrick Rhodes, who has run with some flair in the past and gained 714 YR last fall, figures to get more work in the Turner offense. LSU transfer Jakhari Gore could also figure into the RB mix. The top returning receiver, WR Willis Wright, caught only 25 passes a year ago.

Only a couple of starters are back defensively, too, although that unit somewhat disappointed when allowing 32 ppg last fall. If the new-look “D” for coordinator Josh Conklin wants to replicate anything from 2012, it would be rush defense, as the Golden Panthers ranked a respectable 36th against the run a year ago.

Conklin, most recently the DB coach on Derek Dooley’s now-dispersed staff at Tennessee, is likely to line up his platoon in 4-2-5 looks this fall, with soph LB Davison Colimon dropping back to his former safety spot in the adjusted alignment.

Before dismissing Turner, we do recall that he had a lot of success in a brief run at San Jose State in 1992, and did win the Big Ten and take Illinois into the BCS (and Sugar Bowl) in 2001. But he finished with a 35-57 career mark with the Fighting Illini, and it’s been a while (2004) since he called the shots on the sidelines. We aren’t holding our breath for a quick turnaround at FIU.


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