Alabama takes Florida International’s explosive offense seriously, Saban says
By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Consider it the establishment against the upstarts.
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The blue bloods versus new money.
However it’s characterized, Alabama’s home opener with Florida International will be a matchup smothered with contrasts.
The budding FIU football program is entering its eighth season — a milestone Alabama passed in 1900.
FIU uses the spread offense, while Alabama is known for its traditional pro-style scheme, though new wrinkles are being incorporated.
The Panthers offense can be explosive, so the Tide won’t take today’s 7 p.m. game lightly.
Coach Nick Saban made sure to send that message in his Monday news conference, and his players have taken heed. They understand what a win over Alabama (1-0) would mean for a program that is still in its infancy.
Tide cornerback Javier Arenas remembers what happened two seasons ago when Louisiana-Monroe “crept up” on Alabama and beat the Tide 21-14 in Saban’s first season.
“Some of their guys might say it’s their Super Bowl,” Arenas said of FIU. “But I don’t think they are over-thinking this game. I just think it’s another big opportunity.”
This won’t be the Panthers’ first turn on the big stage, or in Tuscaloosa.
FIU opened the 2008 season against Kansas, Iowa and South Florida. All were losses, but they took then-No. 12 South Florida to the brink in a 17-9 loss in the third game of a 5-7 season.
Three years ago, FIU came to Alabama for its first game following the most troubling episode in the young program’s history. The Panthers were close to 20 suspended players short following a violent brawl with Miami that saw players swinging helmets at each other.
Alabama senior offensive lineman Mike Johnson is one of the few players who remembers playing FIU that Saturday in 2006 in a 38-3 Alabama win.
“We know they’re not scared,” he said. “They came in here a couple years ago and gave us a pretty good fight. … They came in here and played their hearts out. They weren’t scared at all to be in an SEC stadium. We know they aren’t going to be this time.”
Coming from the recruiting gold mine of southern Florida, the FIU program is one of a handful in the region that has popped up in the last decade. Capitalizing on the speedy players who make high school football so exciting in Florida, the Panthers are getting closer to the big time.
Hired after the 2006 debacle, coach Mario Cristobal has been busy on the recruiting trail. Landing T.Y. Hilton was easily his biggest score.
The speedy sophomore receiver makes the spread-em-out Panther offense even more difficult to defend. But that’s just how Arenas prefers it.
“I like the challenge of the pass and the intensity,” he said. “When it’s the spread and you know the pass is coming, you kind of anticipate certain things.”
And while Cristobal wasn’t with the program for its 2006 Alabama game, he is plenty familiar with the Crimson Tide. The third-youngest coach in the FCS was an offensive tackle at Miami from 1989-92 which meant he clinched the 1989 national title against the Tide in the Sugar Bowl two years before Alabama returned the favor on the same field.