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Rant Sports College Football Preview: No. 69 Florida International Golden Panthers

Rant Sports previews 100 teams in 100 days leading up to college football season and ranked 69th are the Florida International Golden Panthers of the Sun Belt Conference.

Mario Cristobal, head coach of Florida International, is a native son of Miami but his restoration success in West Dade means a move to an athletic department with millions at their disposal appears imminent. Pitt and Rutgers both came calling this past winter but tempted by another extension, Cristobal decided to stay. Should he continue leading the Golden Panthers on an upward trajectory — they’re 15-11 the last two seasons and 24-38 overall in the head coach’s five seasons at the helm — he seems a decent bet to end up in one of the Big Five conferences (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, ACC) very soon.

In 2011, Florida International posted an 8-5 record with a loss to Marshall in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. What’s not to love about bowl sponsorships? As for the team itself, the Golden Panthers started the season hot by knocking off Louisville and Central Florida before stumbling against Duke (how Dick Vitale failed to capitalize on this victory is beyond me) and getting pasted by eventual conference champion Arkansas State. So where does Florida International stand in 2012?

Impact Players

Offense

T.Y. Hilton no longer plays for Florida International. As one of those, “good gravy, he’s still in school?” student athletes, Hilton’s career for the Golden Panthers mirrored the rise of the entire program. Injuries hindered the elite wideout in 2011 but the third round pick of the Indianapolis Colts still flashed the sort of talent (72 receptions, 1,038 yards, 9 total touchdowns) that made him the 2010 Sun Belt Player of the Year.

So how does Cristobal replace him? The cautious answer is he can’t.

But relying on dynamic running back Kedrick Rhodes to carry the offense will keep the machine humming. Rhodes notched 1,159 yards and 8 touchdowns last season and he’ll ease the transition of whomever starts at quarterback. Jake Medlock didn’t receive a ton of snaps behind outgoing signal-caller Wesley Carroll but in 56 attempts, he managed to complete more than 66% of his passes. He’ll be joined periodically in the backfield by redshirt freshman quarterback Laranzo Hammonds who figures to provide the ground assault to Medlock’s air raid. If military cliches don’t provoke college football excitement, may I suggest watching more of Rihanna in the American film classic Battleship?

Four starters are back on the offensive line and the receiving corps, one that generated more than 1,400 yards outside of Hilton’s production is buoyed by Ohio State transfer James Louis, who brings his blazing 4.47 speed to FIU. For the sake of overworked NCAA investigators, the Golden Panthers pray Louis isn’t an advocate of tattoos.

Defense

Ten starters return and whether handed a grouping of 5-star’s or a stable of lunch-pail, gritty, leave it on the field types, any head coach is happy with that many players coming back. Florida International’s 2011 defense ranked 22nd in yards rushing per game but 66th by the same statistics in passing yards.

That’s where defensive ends Greg Hickman and Tourek Williams (combined for 9.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss last year) must pressure the opposing quarterback to combat what may or may not be a leaky secondary in 2012. Hoping to eradicate that perspective are seniors Sam Miller (corner) and Jonathan Cyprien (safety) who produced 118.5 tackles but will never live up to the All-Name status of fellow defensive back, Jose Cheeseborough. Revel in his calories.

Schedule

Two games within a fortnight of each other probably decide whether 2012 is special for Florida International. Louisville (September 22nd) and Arkansas State (October 4th) both travel to Miami and if the opponent doesn’t create a raucous atmosphere, completed expansion of the north side of the stadium to put attendance at 25,000 will. Win both and undefeated whispers might rise an audible. Beat the Red Wolves alone and the Sun Belt is there for the taking.

Sandwiched in the middle of those two matchups though is 2012′s trap game for the Golden Panthers, a trip to Louisiana-Lafayette.

9-3 is realistic for Mario Cristobal’s squad and a break or two might invite double-digit wins. Accomplish that, at Florida International, and there’s no telling the level of program who will leave their numbers at the doorstep of the rising star head coach.