Maryland vs. FIU Preview: Estimating Maryland's chances at another opening victory

Bob DeChiara-US PRESSWIRE

Will Maryland win their eighth consecutive home opener?

Maryland has not lost a home opener since 2005, and looks to continue that impressive streak Saturday afternoon as they host the Florida International Golden Panthers in College Park. Kick-off is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET.

FIU is under the charge of new head coach Ron Turner, who took over for the highly successful Mario Cristobal (controversially fired after one down year, when they went 3-9 last season). This is Turner's third run at being a head coach - he went 7-4 with San Jose State in 1992 before being hired as the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator the next year, and then went 35-57 in eight season at Illinois before again leaving to be the Bears' offensive coordinator. The past three years, he's bounced around as a positional coach with the Colts and Buccaneers, and is now back at the head of a program that desperately needs a rebound.

The Panthers made another drastic change between last season and this one - they're in a new conference. FIU founded a football team in 2002, joining Division I-A in 2005 as a member of the Sun Belt. After eight years and one conference title in that conference, they have joined up with Conference USA.

FIU only returns five starters (not necessarily such a terrible thing for a 3-9 squad) - one on offense and four on defense, and two of the four on defense will not be starting Saturday.

Let's run the matchup down, unit by unit.

Maryland offensive line vs. FIU defensive line:

We're going to start in the roughest place for Maryland, because it seems like a sensible jumping off point. The Terps will start one senior, one junior, two sophomores and a redshirt freshman (a former walk-on, at that) on a depleted line that has been a cause of serious concern in the Terrapin camp. Randy Edsall seems to be happy with that unit of five, but has expressed concern about finding a group of eight players to rotate. If injuries (like Nick Klemm's) or fatigue become an issue, Maryland's line could be a serious issue. The Terps ranked 122nd in adjusted line yards and 124th in adjusted sack rate last season, and unless both of those drastically improve, things could be rough.

Florida International has three players on their defensive line that have been named to various all-conference teams over the preseason - defensive end Giovani Francois and defensive tackles Isame Faciane and Greg Hickman. Hickman in particular is a star, being named to the official conference first-team defense after putting together nine tackles for a loss with two sacks and an interception last season. Faciane had five-and-a-half tackles for a loss last season, and will start on the inside with Hickman.

Francois, who went to local Wise high school, had four-and-a-half sacks off the bench last year but will miss the game with an injury. Redshirt sophomore Denzell Perine, who did not record any defensive statistics last year, will start in his place. Joining Perine, Faciane and Hickman on the starting line will be sophomore Michael Wakefield, who had three tackles last year and is a surprise starting choice over 6'8" senior Paul Crawford.

Advantage: FIU

Maryland defensive line vs. offensive line:

Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis both graduated last season, and there's no telling what kind of effect those two losses will have on the program. They were clubhouse leaders who had been through it all with the team, but they were also just flat-out, outstanding linemen. The two combined for more than 11% of the team's tackles last season, but there are some key players returning who have both the experience and talent to carry the load.

It all starts with Darius Kilgo in the middle, who pushed Francis to the outside last season. The gigantic nose tackle had 39 tackles with 5.5 for a loss and two sacks last season, and will be joined by Keith Bowers and Quinton Jefferson. Bowers started as a freshman, with 36 tackles and six for a loss in 2011, but last year had 11 tackles off the bench. Jefferson was a highly-touted recruit coming out of Pennsylvania who played in nine games last year, with 13 tackles, a fumble forced and a fumble recovered. He was one of the top performers in preseason camp, and much is expected of him this season.

FIU has to replace their entire offensive line, but it's not so bad - four starters are redshirt juniors and one is a redshirt sophomore. The Panthers' line was only slightly better than Maryland's in 2012, and returns a total of eight starts across three players. Left tackle David Delsoin, moved from right guard, leads the way with four career starts.

Advantage: Maryland

Maryland rushing offense vs. FIU front seven:

It's not going to be as simple as running backs vs. linebackers here - much of Maryland's rushing offense relies on their quarterback and, of course, much of any rushing defense worth anything depends on the linemen.

While the scheme is going to be similar, Maryland's rushing offense is going to look widely different than last year, without Wes Brown or Justus Pickett and with C.J. Brown. Just for fun, though, Maryland's best rushers from last year, ranked by Adjusted POE (points over expected, like the running back equivalent of baseball's WAR):

  1. Stefon Diggs +2.8
  2. Devin Burns +2.2
  3. Caleb Rowe -1.2
  4. Brandon Ross -3.5
  5. Perry Hills -5.6
Wes Brown is soon behind, with Albert Reid a significant ways back. With a more experienced Ross and Reid and the addition of Reid, Maryland's rushing attack will get a significant boost in the zone read game.

We just talked about FIU's defensive linemen and the strengths that they provide, but the Panthers have to replace all three starting linebackers from last year. Luis Rosado and Davison Collimon will start on the outside, with Markeith Russell in the middle - Collimon was the only one on the statsheet last year, with three tackles.

Advantage: Toss-up.

Maryland front seven vs. FIU rushing offense

Kilgo, Bowers and Jefferson will provide a solid core up front, but the secret to Brian Stewart's 3-4 success lies with the linebackers (just ask DeMarcus Ware). The Terps lose Demetrius Hartsfield and Darin Drakeford from last year's excellent unit, but the group of Matt Robinson, Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Marcus Whitfield shouldn't miss a beat.

Robinson, a converted safety, beat out excellent bench contributor Alex Twine for the starting job, while Whitfield has two strong backups at WILL in the Yannicks - Cudjoe-Virgil and Ngakoue. In the middle, Cole Farrand and L.A. Goree are perhaps the most reliable part of the defense (outside of the cornerbacks)

FIU's returning starter at running back, Kedrick Rhodes (167 rushes for 714 yards and four touchdowns) was kicked off the team earlier this year, and so the starting duties fall to sophomore Shane Coleman (eight carries for 34 yards). Star quarterback Jake Medlock, who we'll get to in a second, is also strong on the ground, running 87 times for 236 yards and three touchdowns.

Advantage: Maryland.

Maryland receivers vs. FIU secondary

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Advantage: Maryland.

(FIU has two returning starters in the secondary, junior cornerback Richard Leonard, who is being "rested", and senior cornerback Sam Miller (62 tackles, four for a loss, two sacks, five passes broken up, one interception. Miller is also taking over for Leonard in the return game - Leonard averaged nearly 30 yards per return last season).

Maryland secondary vs. FIU receivers

With Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson, Maryland has two of the top cornerbacks in the conference. McDougle is a great playmaker, while Johnson is a lockdown corner, and the Terps have serious depth behind them in senior Isaac Goins, freshman star Will Likely, and fellow freshman Jarrett Ross.

At safety, Maryland starts two true sophomores - Anthony Nixon (41 tackles, three passes broken up, one interception) and Sean Davis (13 tackles).

The Panthers' top two receivers from last year, Wayne Times and Jacob Younger, have graduated, and the next three leading pass catchers, all who had eligibility remaining, were removed from the team. Willis Wright (25 receptions, 633 yards and five touchdowns) was left off the roster after academic issues, running back Rhodes ran into legal issues and Glenn Coleman (13 receptions for 227 yards) had academic issues as well. Next up is Jairus Williams, who will not start. That leaves T.J. Lowder (five catches for 72 yards) and some combination of Clinton Taylor, De'Andre Jasper (four receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown) and Dominique Rhymes (one catch for 12 yards).

Advantage: Maryland.

Maryland quarterback vs. FIU quarterback

Yes, the two don't play against each other per se, but it's worth an examination. Maryland's C.J. Brown hasn't played since 2011, when he completed nearly 50% of his passes for 842 yards and seven touchdowns against six interceptions, but he's been incredible in camp and has added a significant amount of zip and power to his throws, as well as taking over as the undisputed leader of the Maryland offense. Throw in his ability on the ground (79 rushes for 574 yards and five touchdowns in 2011) and the insane depth and talent at receiver, and Brown has the chance to make a real mark this year.

Junior quarterback Jake Medlock is a great talent for the Panthers, and undoubtedly their best player on the offensive side of the ball. Last year he completed 57.8% of his passes for 2,127 yards (8.1 yards per attempt) with 13 touchdowns against two interceptions, while running for over 200 yards and three touchdowns more. He had three 300-yard games - Duke, Middle Tennessee State and Troy.

Advantage: Toss up.

Overall impressions and final tally

It comes out 4-1-2 in favor of Maryland, but this is pretty handily Maryland's easiest game on the schedule. FIU's squad was not just depleted by seniors graduating, but by a new head coach coming in and kind of clearing out some problem cases - most of whom were some of the biggest contributors to last year's squad.

Tl;dr - FIU has some players to watch out for - Medlock, Hickman and Faciane in particular - but they're a terribly depleted squad in a new system. It's going to be a long year for the Golden Panthers, and that will likely start Saturday afternoon in College Park.

Our official prediction: Maryland 34, FIU 10.

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