Commentary: FIU leaves for Conference USA but FAU still in position to be successful

Rolando Rosa

Wide receiver Jenson Stoshak had 5 catches for 108 yards and a touchdown, his longest catch on the night was a 60-yard reception. Photo by Melissa Landolfa

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, FAU’s first in its new on-campus stadium, the Owls won a single game in coach Howard Schnellenberger’s final season.

Meanwhile, FIU posted a winning record (8-5) for the second straight season, capped off with a trip to a bowl game. It was the Beef O’Brady Bowl (seriously, what’s next college football? The Ruby Tuesday Salad Bowl?), but it’s hard to knock the Panthers for their accomplishment when FAU won 10 games total the last three seasons.

Conference USA came calling this summer in search of a Florida team after UCF bolted for the Big East. FIU didn’t hesitate, smartly, to punch its golden ticket out of the Sun Belt. When it comes to mid-level South Florida schools, the Panthers were clearly the better team at the right time. FIU cashed in on the opportunity to gain more exposure for its rising program.

But what if I told you Conference USA made a mistake?

Fast forward to 2012.

Tonight, FAU and FIU headed into the 66 degree, rainy, and 11th (perhaps final) installment of the Shula Bowl. The Panthers prevailed 34-24. But if you double check their current records, you’ll do a double take.

Here’s a shocker: The Owls and the Panthers have the same record (3-8 overall, 2-5 in conference) despite FIU being predicted by pundits to win the conference and FAU picked for the cellar.

FAU’s defense gave up 431 yards of total offense to FIU on Friday night. Photo by Ryan Murphy

The tri-county rivals are still practically equals, which dumbfounds me as to how they get to move out of the conference. I’m not the only person shocked by this. Fans agree as well that the teams aren’t overwhelmingly different and that FIU isn’t worthy of a conference change.

“With a losing record, they don’t deserve to be,” FAU junior business marketing major Joey Basher said as the rain poured down in the third quarter. “You need a big program with a winning record. Their basketball program’s been failing. Their football program’s been failing. Why move them up a conference? They should move down a conference.”

While demoting the Panthers may be a little harsh, an example of FAU’s greatest strength is facilities.

FIU Stadium (built in 1995), which will eventually expand to 45,000 seats after the conference switch, is nicknamed “The Cage.” However, currently it should instead be called “The Dump.” As of last season, FIU’s version of a press box consisted of a flimsy tent plotted at the top of their stadium.

FAU Football Stadium is just over a year old and while the attendance numbers have significantly dropped since the inaugural game, it already has impressed the few who’ve attended this season.

“This stadium kills [FIU’s] stadium,” said Basher who transferred from FIU last year. “Their stadium has been there for a while. This one is brand new. Everything’s looking a lot nicer, a lot better.”

Historically, the Owls have been a lot better versus the Panthers. FAU has a 8-2 record against their South Florida neighbors. The schools are less than an hour apart and are even less separated on the field.

FAU is blossoming late in the season behind the arm of quarterback Graham Wilbert and the leadership of new coach Carl Pelini. The Owls have more 30 point games in the last five games (three times) than they did all of last season (twice).

Just down the turnpike, it took an eight point win two weeks ago against first-year D-1 program South Alabama for FIU to snap a 7-game losing streak. Out of 120 D-1 teams, the Panthers have the 88th ranked offense (24.9 ppg) and 100th ranked defense (33.3 ppg).

Safety Damian Parms had five tackles on the night, one for a loss. Photo by Ryan Murphy

How the mighty have fallen.

And to think, the Panthers coach could have been in the Big East right now. The 42-year old FIU head coach, Mario Cristobal, is college football’s first Division I Cuban-American head coach.

After last season, he could have been the coach of Rutgers but turned the school down after contract negotiations went sour. Cristobal may be a good football coach, but he’d fail as a poker player. He had the perfect opportunity to cash out. Instead, he’s struggling through a disastrous season, losing all positive momentum heading into the conference change.

At FIU, Cristobal took his lumps initially, taking over Don Strock’s winless club in 2006 and adding just seven more wins in his first three years manning the sidelines. The Panthers were in total disarray on the field, summed up by a 2006 brawl against UM that suspended 18 of its players.

It was during this time period that FAU was the quick riser and up-and-comer of the Sun Belt. Schnellenberger lead the Owls to back-to-back bowl wins in 2007 and 2008. At 3 years old, FAU was the youngest program to ever win a bowl game.

In contrast, it took the Panthers twice as long to make a bowl game. But in the world of sports, it’s all about what-have-you-done for me lately. And lately, FAU has gone backwards, not reaching the postseason in the last three years.

Dig a little bit deeper, though, and the Owls have just as bright a future as the Panthers. Just because FAU is stuck in the Sun Belt doesn’t mean progress can’t be made. The new stadium will attract better recruits for Pelini in the upcoming seasons. This, in turn, will gradually lead to more wins and more people at games.

An elderly FIU fan in a navy blue polo put things in its proper perspective afterwards. FIU just started its first winning streak of the season with one game to go. He was more relieved than pleased. He glanced over at me, noticing my FAU attire and admitted something.

“Feels good to get a win,” he muttered in the elevator afterwards. “They’re on the same level. There’s no difference between the two of them.”

No, no there isn’t.