It's quite simple on Saturday for FIU: win or stay home. The Panthers (5-6) have a chance to play in the third bowl game in FIU's 14-year history by defeating Western Kentucky (8-2) in the regular season finale at FIU Stadium. With the number of bowl tie-ins that Conference USA has FIU is assured of playing in the college football postseason by beating WKU. Of course, that's easier said than done with WKU featuring the best quarterback in the conference, Brandon Doughty, who will likely be a high NFL draft pick next spring. The City of Neon Lights thinks WKU is a Ryan Tannehill jersey number better than FIU.
The Hilltoppers score in bunches as do the Panthers at home this season. FIU has averaged 45 points per game at home this season. Yes, the home competition for FIU this season has not been the top of Division I but still the Panthers had to make the plays to score. WKU's defense is ranked ninth out of 13 teams in total defense in CUSA, allowing 27 points per game, which could make for a high-scoring game Saturday.
Like any quarterback, even the great ones at the next level like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, etc., Doughty can be slowed down and rattled if the Panthers get a good pass rush and pressure him. I'm not saying FIU has to sack him eight times, but the Panthers do have to harass Doughty with QB hurries, hits on him and of course sacks always help. That's one big reason for the New York Giants' two Super Bowl wins over the New England Patriots. Doughty is not exactly a dual-threat quarterback so if FIU can get to him in the pocket the Panthers have a shot of slowing the WKU offense. FIU has not had as much success getting to the quarterback this season as it did in 2014. The Panthers currently have 21 sacks as opposed to 31 sacks last season. If FIU can't muster much of a pass rush and rattle Doughty then it could be a long day.
Doughty is not the only WKU offensive weapon. WKU running backs Anthony Wales and D'Andre Ferby have combined for 1,165 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns at 5.8 yards per carry. Wales is averaging a fantasy football-like 7.8 yards per carry. Ferby is a 240-pound bruiser and you know that FIU has had trouble with big backs in recent history, see: Marshall's Devon Johnson and Pittsburgh's James Conner.
Receiver Taywan Taylor is WKU's answer to T.Y. Hilton. Taylor already has 1,051 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Jared Dangerfield should merit plenty of respect as well with 620 yards and seven touchdowns. Taylor and Dangerfield both have good size at 6-1 and 6-3, respectively. This will be a challenge for Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon.
WKU gives up points. In half of its games the Hilltoppers have surrendered 28 points or more, including 30 to Old Dominion, who FIU thrashed 41-12, and 28 points to CUSA doormat North Texas. FIU can put up points but it needs its running game to help out quarterback Alex McGough. WKU allows 177 rushing yards per game. Anthony Jones was one of the few bright spots last week against Marshall rushing for 73 yards on 16 carries. The Panthers need yards on the ground from Jones, Alex Gardner and company to not only give McGough time to throw but at the same time keep the WKU offense off the field.
As far as some intangibles that have been bandied about on the worldwide web this week, yes, technically WKU doesn't gain much from its game against FIU. Regardless of Saturday's outcome, WKU will play Marshall for the CUSA East Division title next Friday. Still, the Hilltoppers will not want to go into next week's showdown with the Herd off a bad performance. So I would not expect WKU to rest players. Plus Doughty, a Davie native and North Broward Prep product, is expected to have around 100 people at the game so you know he will want to have a good game. For FIU, the motivation is simple: go to a bowl game with a win. The Panthers are home where they play better than on the road and the Saturday's weather might help FIU.
There is a 60 percent chance of rain throughout Saturday's game with temperatures in the 80s and humidity at 80 percent. WKU is not used to the hot weather nor the humidity. All of which could give FIU an edge and against an offensive juggernaut like WKU the Panthers will take any edge.