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HUNTINGTON - Last season, FIU was on the cusp of taking the East Division crown.

It wasn't until a close loss to Marshall in the regular-season finale that the Panthers fell out of first place, which gave Middle Tennessee the crown.

In 2019, however, Butch Davis has talent and hunger back at his disposal, and again, FIU and Marshall are expected to be the frontrunners for the 2019 Conference USA East Division crown.

Fittingly, the two teams will meet in the regular-season finale - this one on Nov. 30 in Huntington - in a matchup that could again decide the Conference USA East Division title.

For FIU, it doesn't take long to find talent all along the field.

It starts with quarterback James Morgan, who returns after a stellar first season following his transfer from Bowling Green to the Panthers.

Morgan finished with 2,727 yards and 26 touchdowns while completing 65 percent of his passes and had just seven interceptions - two of which came in the loss to the Herd.

Morgan has a pair of talented wide receivers to target with Maurice Alexander and Austin Maloney both back, and tight end Sterling Palmer is budding into a star within the league at his position.

However, the key for the Panthers is going to be its rushing attack, which returns one of the conference's best 1-2 punches in Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell. Maxwell led the team in rushing and is a stable force while Jones exhibits that explosive ability to break a game. What's more impressive is that Jones is now fully healed after being limited in 2018 following a shooting that left him out for the first portion of the year. D'Vonte Price is also a sneaky good back that provides another threat, plus depth that will help keep the Panthers' backfield fresh.

Up front, FIU's pass protection was stellar, and the unit returns three players, led by guard Shane McGough and center Dallas Connell - both of whom are all-league performers. If there is a knock on the unit, it's their run-blocking, which needs to improve and should with experience.

In all, the offense averaged 32 points and more than 400 yards a game, and the team went 8-1 when scoring 28 or more points. With nine starters back, the unit should flourish in 2019.

On the defensive side, eight starters return from a solid unit, led by linebacker Sage Lewis, who is one of Conference USA's best at his position.

While Lewis leads a talented group of linebackers, the experience on the back-end is just as crucial with cornerback Richard Dames and safety Olin Cushion leading a unit that returns all four starters.

For the defense, the biggest question mark is the interior of the defensive front, which wasn't good against the run in 2018 and lost a bulky gap-filler in 350-pound Tayland Humphrey in the offseason. Humphrey's loss means more reps for Teair Tart, who is solid, but needs to be more consistent. Defensive end Noah Curtis also needs to establish a better pas rush.

If the front is unable to do so, look for Davis to go smaller and quicker with his linebacker corps with Josh Powell and Rocky Jacques-Louis to get in the opposing backfield with more consistency. That will allow for more plays within the experienced secondary, also.

On paper, FIU should be the favorite to win Conference USA, but the schedule is not exactly in their favor. Contests with divisional contenders Florida Atlantic and Marshall each come on the road, as well as a cross-divisional game against Louisiana Tech.

Especially damning is a home game against Miami at Marlins Park in the week before the season-ending Nov. 30 matchup in Huntington with the Herd.

While FIU is likely the most talented C-USA team in 2019 and a definite contender for the Conference USA title, the work is cut out for Davis to actually pull off a championship.

If FIU wins the 2019 title, the Panthers will certainly have earned it. Look for the Panthers to keep on pace with their nine-win season from 2018.


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