Two Group of 5 teams with very high hopes heading into 2019 will get together at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans on Thursday night, as the FIU Panthers will take on the Tulane Green Wave in a must-win game for both teams.
FIU is led by veteran head coach Butch Davis, who has done a very nice job of quickly rebuilding the Panthers program in short order. Davis has won 17 games in two years, and with the uptick in recruiting since his arrival, the FIU program should only continue to get better under Davis. Last season, the Panthers were one of those teams that just found a way to win in spite of a lack of dominance at times offensively. Defensively, FIU did a nice job defending the pass, as they limited teams to just 194.1 yards per game last season. In addition, they also limited teams to 25.2 points per game, a number that will be good enough to keep them in just about every game in 2019.
Tulane is coming off a 7-6 finish to the 2018 season that was capped off by a 41-24 win over Louisiana in the AutoNation Cure Bowl. Head coach Willie Fritz brings back a team with confidence, one that is in a position to return to the postseason in 2019. The Green Wave are very good at controlling the ball on the ground, as they averaged 218.2 rushing yards per game in 2018. Putting the pressure on the quarterback was the strength of the defense last season, as Tulane averaged 3.15 sacks per game, and if the Green Wave can come close to replicating those numbers in 2019, they will be a contender in the AAC all year long.
FIU at Tulane
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 29 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Tulane -2
When FIU Has the Ball
James Morgan is back at quarterback for the Panthers after completing 65 percent of his passes and throwing 26 TD passes last season. Morgan will have plenty of weapons at his disposal in 2019. Maurice Alexander and Austin Maloney will comprise a tough 1-2 punch at wide receiver that should put plenty of pressure on the Green Wave secondary. Coaches are high on D’Vonte Price and Napoleon Maxwell at running back, but those guys will only be as good as the performance of the offensive line this season. Thus, controlling the line of scrimmage is going to be the difference in this game for FIU if the Panthers are going to get the win on the road.
Tulane needs to attack defensively all night long to take advantage of FIU's rebuilt offensive line. The Green Wave posted 46 sacks in 2018, led by outside linebacker Patrick Johnson with 10.5 sacks. Limiting big plays in the passing game will be key for the Tulane defense, as you can expect FIU to go after guys like safety P.J. Hall early and often to try and rattle him by making plays down the field.
When Tulane Has the Ball
In order for the Green Wave to take the next step as a program and make it to the AAC Championship Game, they need to be more explosive offensively. New offensive coordinator Will Hall will be implementing a more modernized offensive scheme this season to try and inject some life into the offense. Justin McMillan is back at quarterback and will need to drastically improve his accuracy after completing only 51.3 percent of his passes in 2018. Darius Bradwell will be a tough matchup for the FIU defense, as he rushed for 1,134 yards to lead a deep group of returning running backs this season. At receiver, Oklahoma State grad transfer Jalen McCleskey and Darnell Mooney will need to have big games against a stout Panthers secondary.
FIU is led by Sage Lewis at middle linebacker, Richard Dames at safety and Stanley Thomas-Oliver III at cornerback. Thomas-Oliver should draw the assignment of taking on McCluskey, and that one-on-one matchup will be a fun one all night long. The key in the opener for the Panthers defense will be to slow down the run enough to force McMillan to try to beat them through the air. If the Green Wave have to rely on the passing game, they will be in trouble.
This game should go down to the wire, as the two teams are pretty evenly matched. The difference in the game should be the quarterback position, as James Morgan is a more productive returning player than Justin McMillan. Look for the Panthers to escape on the road with a narrow one-score victory to start the 2019 season at 1-0.
Prediction: FIU 28, Tulane 24
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.
(Top photo courtesy of Tulane Athletics)