It's 2001. In Miami, on the campus of Florida International, they are finally setting the first bricks towards a football program. They hire a coach, Don Strock.
It's 2002. Don Strock and his staff have compiled the first FIU recruting class. They will begin playing games later on in the fall in Division 1-AA, as an independent. It's August 29th and the Florida International Panthers kick off their football program against St. Peter's College in front of a full house at FIU Stadium. It's October 31st; Halloween. The Golden Panthers just demolished Jacksonville State at home, finishing a surprisingly successful 4-5 opening campaign.
It's 2003. Strock's team doesn't face as well the second time around, as they again play a rushed fit-it-in schedule, playing all 9 of its games before Halloween. That is a game every 6 days. They start off horribly slow, failing to win their first 7 games before barely salvaging the season by beating Holy Cross and Jacksonville State. One of those first 7 losses is significant, if only because of the competition. The Golden Panthers, on October 18th, made a road trip up to Troy, Alabama, to take on the Troy State Trojans, a Division 1-A team. On this Troy State team is future NFL Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware. Despite eventually falling, the Golden Panthers remain competitive throughout, losing by only 11 points.
It's 2004. Again, they have to play a rushed schedule and, yet again, they struggle. This year, after last season's semi-moral victory, the Golden Panthers schedule 3 Division 1-A opponents. Against Louisiana-Lafayette, at home no less, they lose by a relatively mere 9 points. Against Louisiana-Monroe, on the road, they lose by 8. By 7 to Florida Atlantic. That is 4 games played against D-1A competition, with 4 losses by a combined 35 points. This competitiveness, despite their poor 3-7 record, leads to something drastic.
It's 2005. Despite just being created 4 years ago, and only having played 28 games in the entire history of its football program, it was decided. They would move to Division 1-A, and join the Sun Belt Conference. This means that there three-1-A teams scheduled in 2004 would skyrocket up to the mandatory 9, with the 10th game being played against a soon-to-be 1-A team, in the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The only game played against 1-AA competition is a home game against Florida A&M. In order to be a competitive 1-A program, the Golden Panthers began to change the 'money-earners'. While surviving in the earlier years by playing a balanced home-road schedule, they are now competing with the big boys. So they make a trip to Manhattan; their first 'real' game as a 1-A team. They show up, losing by only 2 scores. To a BCS-conference team. The next week, however, isn't as uplifting. Combining the K-State 14 point defecit with the 35 points over the previous 4 games, that is a combined 49 point defecit spread out over 5 games. Game #6 against 1-A competition, however, is a 56-3 blowout destruction at the hands of the Texas Tech Red Raiders and their patented spread offense. This one loss' point total is more than the previous five losses' combined. The next week they travel for the third straight week, to Arkansas State. Compared to the BCS-buzzsaw they have run into for two consecutive weeks, the Sun Belt Indians seem to be an easier matchup. Not so, the Golden Panthers are destroyed for the second time in as many weeks, 66-24. They, finally, play a home game against the 'worst' team on their schedule, 1-AA Florida A&M, and win. Then, they lose to North Texas at home and Troy on the road by a combined 8 points. After splitting with the Louisiana-hyphens, they close out the year by winning their final three games, including crushing almost-1-A Florida Atlantic 52-6.
It's 2006. Last season's success has everyone in a frenzy. Another win-or-two, and this team may miraculously go bowling only 5 years after the start of the program. However, instead the season takes a turn for the worse, as Florida International heartbreakingly lost to Middle Tennessee State 6-7 in Murfreesbo. They then came home to Florida and took on the South Florida Bulls, where they were again edged by a single point, 20-21. Their first home game, against Bowling Green, is a five-point defeat. A trip up to Maryland, a BCS money-earner, ends in more heartbreak, with the Golden Panthers losing by only 4 points. A trip back home contains the first blowout of the season, as they lose by 25 to Arkansas State, but that is immediately followed by a 7-OT thriller against North Texas in Denton. After such a gut-wrenching defeat, they seemed to give up on the season, which combined with a more difficult schedule made the final half of the 2006 season painful to watch. They were blown out in Miami in the infamous Miami-FIU brawl, which led to 19 FIU players being suspended for a game. FIU kicked two players off the team, and the brawl was immediately succeeded by Strock's resignation, effective at the end of the season.
It's December 19th, 2006. Coach Don Strock has been resigned for weeks, and Florida International has called a press conference. Mario Cristobal, who has been the offensive line/tight ends coach at Miami for the past 3 years, after serving for three years in a similar capacity in Rutgers. A new era in Florida International is beginning. After five years under Don Strock, where the program made tremendous strides from non-existence to a semi-competitive D1-A team, a new face is taking over the program.
It's 2007. Mario Cristobal's introduction to head coaching goes as follows: @ Penn State, vs. Maryland, @ Miami, @ Kansas. Even worse, he is called upon to face that guillotine of a schedule on a team that has only 8 seniors, with 77% of the players being either first-or-second-year players. He loses those four games, unsurprisingly. What is surprising, is the fact that the four losses came by a combined total of 141 points. 141 points. In four games. The seasos doesn't get any better. FIU is blown out by Middle Tennesse State, Arkansas and Florida Atlantic, and loses semi-close games against Troy, Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State. They start out the year 0-11, closing out the Orange Bowl forever with a 38-19 victory over North Texas.
It's now 2008. Mario Cristobal is leading the Golden Panthers for the second season, this time with a more talented and more veteran-laden squad. They posted a solid recruiting class, with four 3 stars (according to Rivals) choosing to play football in Miami. FIU Stadium is undergoing massive renovations, upping the seating capacity to 18,000. By 2010, the capacity will be increased to 45,000. They have 18 seniors this season, as opposed to 8. As opposed to the near-impossible opening stretch of the 2007 campaign, the Golden Panthers spend opening weekend in Lawrence then spend the next week in Iowa City, taking on a pretty-crappy Iowa Hawkeyes team that is capable of being upset. After that, they play semi-rival South Florida at home and don't play another BCS-conference team the rest of the season. All of this is reason for optimism for Mario Cristobal and the Florida International football program. They will emerge onto Memorial Stadium on August 30th full of me-against-the-world attitude, likening an upset of the 2008 Orange Bowl Champions to beating the world. While a 56-3 loss was the result of last year's contest, this is an entirely different FIU team with an entirely different mindset:
Hope springs eternal.
Editor's Note: This is just to set the stage for actual preview-stuff. Here is the rough outline for the week, at least as far as FIU goes: Wednesday we will analyze FIU's offense, Thursday the defense and Friday the Special Teams. On Friday, we will also look at last year's game, as well as any other random stuff regarding the game. On Saturday, I will wrap up all discussion on FIU and make a final, June-prediction regarding the game.