FIU (0-0) at Duke (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 1st, 7:00 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Wallace Wade Stadium (33,941) -- Durham, North Carolina. Television: ESPN3. Home Record: FIU 0-0, Duke 0-0. Away Record: FIU 0-0, Duke 0-0. Neutral Record: FIU 0-0, Duke 0-0. Conference Record: FIU 0-0, Duke 0-0. Series Record: Duke leads, 1-0.
GAME NOTES: The FIU Panthers have a shot to avenge a 2011 loss right away as they head to Wallace Wade Stadium to kickoff their season against the Duke Blue Devils.
FIU's head coach Mario Cristobal enters his sixth year with the team and has guided the program to back-to-back bowl seasons. The Panthers finished with an 8-5 record in 2012 after they lost, 20-10, to the Marshall Thundering Herd in Beef'O'Brady Bowl. The 8-5 mark in 2011, which was the best of Cristobal's tenure, makes the Golden Panthers' career head coaching record 24-38 coming into 2012. FIU received the most first place votes from the league's coaches in the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Preseason poll.
Duke's David Cutcliffe has struggled to turn the program into an ACC contender since taking over in 2008. Cutcliffe has gone 15-33 as the Blue Devils' head coach in four seasons. Despite his struggles in Durham, Cutcliffe came in with an impressive resume after he worked his way up from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator at Tennessee, where he worked with Peyton Manning. He then became the head coach of Ole Miss and recruited Peyton's younger brother, Eli to quarterback the Rebels. Cutcliffe was offered the position of head coach at Tennessee, where he served as an assistant coach from 1982-1998, following Lane Kiffin's sudden departure in 2010, but he turned it down to remain at Duke. The Blue Devils have finished the past two seasons with a 3-9 overall record and a 1-7 mark in ACC action.
The Blue Devils and FIU met for the first time in history on Oct. 8, 2011 in Miami. Duke overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win its third game in a row while the Panthers exited with a two-game losing streak.
The Panthers return eight starters from last season, but will have a tough time replacing quarterback Wes Carroll and their big play producing wideout T.Y. Hilton. Redshirt sophomore Jake Medlock will be handed the reins of the offense after serving as the team's backup as a rookie.
FIU's 5-foot-11 senior wide receiver Wayne Times is back in the mix after finishing second on the team with 540 yards, 54 catches, and two touchdowns in 2011. Jacob Younger and Glenn Coleman are both going to see action at wideout as well. Cristobal needs a new star to emerge early because when Hilton was off the field with injuries last season, FIU's offense was tame.
Junior halfback Kedrick Rhodes had a sensational sophomore campaign and set a new program record with 1,149 yards. The strong performance put Rhodes in the 2012 Doak Walker candidate list. He could break all of FIU's career rushing records by the end of this year.
The strong season for FIU was powered by its aggressive and stingy defensive unit. The Panthers gave up only 19.4 points per game and led the Sun Belt with 2.7 sacks per contest. They also managed to average an impressive 6.8 tackles for loss per game with a consistent application of backfield pressure from all angles. Senior DE Tourek Williams was selected as the Sun Belt's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year as he enters with 11.5 career sacks. The senior trio of Jordan Hunt, Winston Fraser, and Kenny Dillard all return to their starting linebacker spots.
Senior safety Johnathan Cyprien enters 2012 with 272 career tackles, which leaves him just 30 shy of Scott Bryant's program record. Cyprien is a hard hitting defensive back and a 2012 Thorpe Award Candidate. Sophomore Justin Halley will line up at free safety alongside Cyprien while Jose Cheeseborough, Sam Miller, Junior Mertile, and Richard Leonard rotate at cornerback.
Duke's offense was one-dimensional as it effectively passed the ball for 272.2 yards per game, but managed just 94.1 yards on the ground. Although the Blue Devils found success with QB Sean Renfree airing it out, they finished 93rd in the NCAA in scoring. Renfree completed 65 percent of his throws for 2,891 yards and 14 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in 2011. Renfree threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns without any turnovers when the Blue Devils defeated FIU.
Duke lost half of its one-two wide receiver punch when Donovan Varner graduated, but Connor Vernon is back. Vernon enters 2012 with 198 career catches, which leaves him just 35 receptions shy of the becoming the ACC's all-time leader in that category.
Junior running back Juwan Thompson was Duke's most frequently used back last season with a team-high 110 carries for 457 yards and seven scores. Thompson is expected to assume most of the rushing responsibility and held Duke break out of its ground game slump.
On the defensive side of the ball, Duke improved its rushing defense by 27.5 yards per game from 2010, but it still gave up 180.7 yards on the ground per game despite switching to a new 4-2-5 scheme. The Blue Devils are likely to find more run stopping success as they become more comfortable in their second year in the system.
The return of redshirt senior DE Kenny Anunike should be a major help to Duke up front. Anunike led the ACC in sacks in 2011 before suffering a season- ending injury. Duke's defensive backfield has a great cornerback duo in Lee Butler and Ross Cockrell, but injuries in the secondary to Taylor Sowell and Jordon Byas leaves the team thin at the safety position.
FIU's defense should be tremendous once again, but its offense is not on the same page just yet. The Blue Devils are not going to run away with this one, but their experienced quarterback should be able to lead them to an opening day win if he avoids turnovers once again.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Duke 20, FIU 17
08/31 10:29:34 ET