The Florida International Panthers pulled off one of the most important upsets in program history last month, beating crosstown power Miami 30-24, which secured bowl eligibility. FIU then lost its regular-season finale in overtime and finished 6-6 overall and 3-5 in Conference USA action, but accepted a bid to play the Arkansas State Red Wolves in the Camellia Bowl on Saturday. Arkansas State won four of its final five regular-season games but suffered a 34-30 loss to South Alabama to finish 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the Sun Belt Conference.
Camellia Bowl: Florida International vs. Arkansas State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Where: Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Ala.)
Spread: Arkansas State -2.5
When Florida International Has the Ball
Quarterback James Morgan is set to make his final college start for the Panthers. Morgan, who transferred from Bowling Green prior to the 2018 season, has thrown for 2,248 yards and 13 touchdowns with only three interceptions as a senior. He's completing 58.0 percent of his passes and averaging 7.0 yards per pass attempt in 12 games, including 11 starts. Kaylan Wiggins, who has played in 10 games and started against New Hampshire (against whom he ran for 187 yards and two touchdowns) could also see action behind center.
Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell have largely shared running back duties for FIU. Jones leads the Panthers with 802 rushing yards and nine touchdowns and has posted four 100-yard rushing games. Maxwell has run for 609 yards and eight touchdowns and posted 114 yards on the ground in the win over Charlotte earlier this season. Wiggins ranks third on the team with 323 rushing yards and three scores. D'Vonte Price, who is likely to ascend to the top of the depth chart in 2020 following the graduation of Jones and Maxwell, has chipped in with 249 rushing yards on 50 carries.
At receiver, Tony Gaiter IV and Shemar Thornton are co-No. 1 targets for Morgan. Gaiter led the team with 49 receptions and 607 yards during the regular season and hauled in four touchdowns. Thornton caught 48 passes for 582 yards and led the squad with five TD grabs. Austin Maloney has been the best big-play wideout for the Panthers as he's averaging 20 yards per catch (23 rec.) with a touchdown.
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
Arkansas State quarterback Layne Hatcher finished the regular season ranked second in the Sun Belt in passing (283.7 ypg), and first in the conference in passer rating (173.49) despite beginning the season as the backup to injured starter Logan Bonner. Hatcher, a former walk-on at Alabama in his first season with the Red Wolves, has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 2,553 yards and 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He averages 9.9 yards per pass attempt, which leads the conference and ranks sixth nationally.
Hatcher has done a terrific job distributing the football, but he has also benefitted from one of the best receiving corps in the country. All-American wideout Omar Bayless finished the regular season No. 2 on the FBS leaderboard in both receiving yards per game (122.8) and touchdowns (16). Only LSU star and Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase performed better in both categories. Bayless also led the team and ranked ninth nationally with 84 receptions.
But wait, there's more: Kirk Merritt has been on the receiving end of 11 touchdown passes this season. Merritt ranks second on the team with 64 receptions and third with 763 receiving yards. Jonathan Adams Jr. (58 rec., 788 yds., 4 TDs) has been an excellent option as well.
At running back, Marcel Murray rebounded from an early-season injury to lead the team with 782 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Murray surpassed 100 rushing yards in three games this season. Jamal Jones also was limited in the first half of the season but has played an important role for the Red Wolves while rushing for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
Arkansas State has posted huge numbers in the passing game — the unit ranks No. 14 nationally with an average of 305.3 yards per game — but Murray gives the Red Wolves balance on offense. Overall, Blake Anderson's squad ranks 36th in the country with an average of 6.20 yards per play.
Unfortunately, injuries have had a major impact on the Red Wolves defensively. Arkansas State ranks 97th overall in yards allowed per play (6.12) and No. 127 in total defense (481.2 ypg). The Red Wolves have been highly susceptible to both the run and the pass, and rank 122nd run defense (222.4 ypg) and No. 104 in pass defense (258.8).
Though Florida International is far from dominant defensively, the Panthers rank much higher statistically. FIU ranks 66th in yards allowed per play (5.63), and 57th in total defense (379.8 ypg). But it's worth noting the Panthers rank among the nation's best defending the pass. FIU has held opponents to 178.5 passing yards per game, and an average of 6.5 yards per pass attempt — figures that rank No. 6 and No. 23 in the country, respectively.
Given its edge defensively, and especially in the passing game, FIU is a dangerous matchup for the Red Wolves. Though it's impossible to stop Hatcher, Bayless and Merritt, the Panthers have the talent to slow down Arkansas State and have enough offense to pull off another upset.
Prediction: Florida International 37, Arkansas State 35
(Top photo courtesy of FIU Athletics)