It's Week 4 of the 2020 college football season, yet the FIU Panthers are still preparing for Game 1: a road test against the Liberty Flames. FIU made national headlines in 2019 by knocking off crosstown rival Miami 30-24. However, the Panthers finished on an otherwise sour note by losing three of the final four games of the season — a stretch that included a 37-7 loss to traditional rival FAU and a 34-26 defeat at the hands of Arkansas State in the Camellia Bowl that sealed a 6-7 final record.
Liberty won its first-ever bowl game in 2019, a 23-16 victory over Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl, to cap an 8-5 campaign in Hugh Freeze's first season as head coach. The Flames then knocked off the rust of a long, strange offseason with a 30-24 victory over Western Kentucky last week.
FIU vs. Liberty
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26, at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Liberty -7
When FIU Has the Ball
Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to the starting quarterback competition at FIU. While looking for someone to replace two-year starter and current New York Jet James Morgan, head coach Butch Davis listed three players — Kaylan Wiggins, Stone Norton, and Max Bortenschlager — with an "OR" by their names on the depth chart the school released this week. If the order is any indication, and we consider his edge in experience with the team, Wiggins may be the best bet. In 10 games in 2019, Wiggins completed 15-of-27 passes for 172 yards. He also ran 49 times for 323 yards, a team-high 6.6 yards per carry, and three touchdowns — making him the team's returning leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. Wiggins set an FIU quarterback record with 187 rushing yards in his only start, a win over New Hampshire.
The staff also brought in Bortenschlager as a graduate transfer from Maryland. Bortenschlager appeared in 17 games with the Terrapins and made nine career starts, but his last pass attempt occurred in 2017. That year he completed 51.9 percent of his passes for 1,313 yards (5.6 yards per attempt), with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Coaches have also been very complimentary of the redshirt freshman Norton throughout the offseason, and his skill set as a passer most closely resembles Morgan. The race has apparently been wide open all offseason, and we could see multiple quarterbacks Saturday.
Running back D'Vonte Price should get the bulk of the carries out of the backfield. Price, a senior, has experience as a reserve but has yet to carry a heavy workload. He ran for 249 yards on 50 carries last season but was more of a factor in 2018 when he gained 560 yards and scored five times on the ground while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Shemar Thornton led the Panthers with 51 receptions, 668 receiving yards and five touchdown catches in 2019 and returns to lead a talented receiving corps. Bryce Singleton is back after missing 2019 due to injury, and Georgia transfer JJ Holloman has high expectations but was not listed on the depth chart and is questionable to play Saturday. The offensive line is expected to be one of the best in C-USA, but like Holloman, experienced offensive linemen D'Antne Demery and Obinna Nwankwo are questionable to play this week.
When Liberty Has the Ball
There is no quarterback question for Liberty. Auburn transfer Malik Willis faced an offseason challenge for the job from Chris Ferguson (a transfer from Maine) but won the job and capitalized with a huge performance in his first start. Willis threw for just 133 yards but ran for 168 and three touchdowns against a strong Western Kentucky defense while leading the Flames to an upset win. Willis was pressured 12 times according to PFF, but thanks in part to his athleticism, Willis was sacked just twice.
Joshua Mack also shined in his first career start at running back, gaining 100 yards on 23 carries. Overall, the Flames rolled up 354 rushing yards and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt, and we should expect more of the same as Liberty works to replace star receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden. CJ Yarbrough is the early favorite to be Willis' top target, and he caught two passes for 53 yards. Kevin Shaa led the team with three receptions and six targets in the opener but gained just 22 yards. Johnny Huntley didn't record a stat in the game, but he is a weapon as an athletic tight end and should be a factor in the passing game in the future.
Liberty did a good job stopping the run in its win last week, holding the Hilltoppers to 98 rushing yards on 28 carries. But WKU had success through the air with three touchdowns and an average of 7.7 yards per attempt, and if a quarterback steps up, the FIU receiving corps could take advantage. Liberty also recorded six hurries and seven total pressures, but just one sack. More pressure would make matters more difficult for the new Panthers signal-caller.
FIU returns six starters and has seven seniors listed among its projected starting 11. Though defensive tackle Andrew Tarver was also left off the depth chart (welcome to 2020!), the unit as a whole is experienced. The secondary is a particular strength with potential All-C-USA cornerback Rishard Dames and safety Richard Dames back from a group that ranked among the top 20 nationally in pass defense a year ago (195.0 ypg).
There are a lot of unknowns we've yet to account for, especially for the Panthers, but it looks like Liberty has a big edge at quarterback. That may be enough to get a win, but FIU's talent throughout the roster and experience on defense should provide a challenge.