This is now the third time in four years that the Florida International Panthers and Indiana Hoosiers are set to do battle, and it would have been the fourth matchup had last year’s contest not been cancelled due to weather. The first two meetings in 2015 and '16 weren’t all that close as the Hoosiers dominated both contests.
FIU is coming off a successful 8–5 season in the first year of the Butch Davis era, but there is work to be done as the Panthers need to replace their starting quarterback, leading rusher, leading receiver and top tight end while just four starters return on the defensive side of the ball. While this is a program heading in the right direction, could we see a step back in 2018 with all of the changeover?
For Indiana, a rebound year is needed after finishing 5-7 in 2017. The Hoosiers also will be breaking in new starters all over on both sides of the ball, but most prognosticators believe this roster is capable of achieving a bowl appearance for the third time in four seasons.
Can FIU break the two-game losing streak to the Hoosiers? Or will Indiana prevail once again Saturday night and get the 2018 season started on the right note?
Indiana at Florida International
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Indiana -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback rotations
Still little indication to this point how the FIU quarterback situation will play out as Christian Alexander and Bowling Green transfer James Morgan have an “OR” designation listed between them on the official depth chart. “We will make a decision on Saturday,” FIU coach Butch Davis said earlier this week. “We’re going to play both of them in this game and probably both in the first half. [It’s been] a phenomenal competition.” As for the Hoosiers, sophomore Peyton Ramsey was announced as the starter earlier this week, beating out Arizona transfer Brandon Dawkins (no longer with the team) and true freshman Michael Penix Jr. Despite Ramsey being named the starter, head coach Tom Allen has reiterated throughout camp that both will see playing time early in the year. We very easily could see four quarterbacks in this contest on Saturday.
2. New faces at the skill positions
Both teams have to replace their top running back, wide receiver and tight end from a season ago, so there will plenty of new faces on the field Saturday night. For Indiana, news broke late last week that projected starting running back Morgan Ellison was suspended indefinitely by the team. Ellison ran for 704 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman in 2017. In his place, sophomore Cole Gest is expected to get the start but a number of others could see time, including seniors Mike Majette and Ricky Brookins. For FIU, Napoleon Maxwell will get the first crack at replacing Alex Gardner, but expect a full-blown committee approach with as many as four backs getting time.
As for who will be catching the football, the Hoosiers return their leading receiver from 2016 in Nick Westbrook who missed all but one play last year after tearing his ACL in the opener against Ohio State. FIU needs to find a replacement for Thomas Owens who ranks sixth in school history in receptions, and will look to either sophomore Bryce Singleton or Florida transfer C.J. Worton to fill the void.
3. Secondary concerns
We just mentioned some of the skill position players that the Hoosiers possess, including the explosive Westbrook. He and the other receivers must be licking their chops when looking at this matchup with the FIU secondary as the Panthers have to replace all four starters from a season ago. FIU was expected to have the services of Rutgers grad transfer Kiy Hester who committed to the team this offseason before reneging his commitment to head back to the Scarlet Knights. One move that could pay dividends is moving former 6-foot-2 receiver Stantley Thomas-Oliver over to the defensive side at corner. Thomas-Oliver has garnered rave reviews by the staff over the offseason and will play in a rotation at corner with Ike Brown and Emmanuel Lubin. These three will be tested early and often on Saturday by the likes of Westbrook, slot receiver Luke Timian and sophomore Whop Philyor.
Both teams have some uncertainty surrounding them entering Week 1, but there are far more questions regarding FIU as we begin the 2018 season. With just four starters back on defense for the Panthers, and jobs still up for grabs on the offensive side of the ball, this is a matchup that Indiana should take control of from the get-go. If Peyton Ramsey can avoid turnovers and get the ball to his surplus of playmakers on the outside, Indiana should cruise to a relatively comfortable victory on opening weekend.
Prediction: Indiana 31, Florida International 17
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.