MIAMI (AP) — Butch Davis wasted no time in his quest to turn Florida International into a winner.
He’s now trying to see if FIU can win consistently.
Davis went 8-5 a year ago in his first season at FIU, guiding the Panthers to their first bowl game since 2011 and leading them to their first winning record in Conference USA play since joining the league five years ago. There’s some clear momentum going into 2018, though there’s also some significant holes to fill — quarterback being among them.
“We’ve got some huge goals for 2018,” Davis said.
First, though, they’ve got to make a huge decision at quarterback. The graduation of Alex McGough means someone else takes the reins of the FIU offense, with returnee Christian Alexander and Bowling Green graduate transfer James Morgan vying for the spot. Someone will obviously have to start in the opener against Indiana on Sept. 1, but Davis has floated the possibility that both may play and the race may last through the season’s first couple weeks.
“You can’t have a great football team unless you have a really good starting quarterback,” Davis said. “Those two guys, they are competing every single day.”
Morgan appeared in 19 games for Bowling Green over the last two years, startiang 13 of them and completing 279 of 538 passes for 3,342 yards and 25 touchdowns. Alexander completed 20 of 34 passes for the Panthers in 2016, and hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since.
“Competition helps everyone show the best of their abilities,” Alexander said. “So may the best man win.”
The good news is that whichever one wins the quarterback job, he’ll be protected by a veteran offensive line. The bad news is that FIU will have at least 13 players in new starting spots, seven of those on the defensive side. But Davis said the offseason training program FIU put in place is going to help make a lot of transitions go smoothly.
“Lot of years of coaching, and I don’t know that I’ve seen a football team work any harder in preparation for the start of the season than this group of guys,” Davis said. “We’re blessed.”
Here’s some of what to know about FIU going into 2018:
For the first time since 2007, FIU will take the field against Miami — its South Florida neighbor. The teams’ game in 2006 was marred by a brawl that saw 31 players suspended. They played the next year as well, without the fireworks. The Sept. 22 game will be emotionally charged, given how many players on both sides grew up playing with and against each other in the Miami area. And remember, Davis is a former Miami head coach who essentially put together the Hurricane team that won the 2001 national title under Larry Coker.
FIU won’t be racking up too many frequent-flier miles this season. The Panthers play seven games at home, an eighth “at” Miami and only leave the state of Florida four times. But there’s not a lot of time to ease into things, with Indiana in Week 1 and the Conference USA opener at Old Dominion the following week.
FIU wasn’t the most disciplined team a year ago, averaging 6.5 penalties per game. It’ll be a point of emphasis in 2018 since this team figures to have less of a margin for error than the experienced club from last season.
If FIU is going to repeat or improve on last year’s eight-win mark, continued excellence in the red zone will be critical. FIU led the nation in red zone efficiency last season. The Panthers were 40 for 41 on their trips inside the opposing 20, with 30 touchdowns and 10 field goals.
Davis’ staff has three people who are very familar to the Miami football scene — given their ties to the Hurricanes. Defensive line coach Kenny Holmes and running backs coach Tim Harris Jr. are both Miami graduates, and wide receivers coach Aubrey Hill is a former Miami assistant.