With a boatload of starters back from last year's 7-5 squad, Florida International University was the pick of the coaches to win the Sun Belt Conference this year.

But FIU has stumbled to a 1-3 start, losing to Duke, UCF and nationally ranked Louisville.  In addition, the Panthers struggled to beat Akron in overtime, needing a field goal at the gun to tie it and another in OT to win it.

Now the Panthers open conference play against Louisiana at Cajun Field minus two of their offensive weapons.

Quarterback Jake Medlock, who came on in relief for the Panthers in last year's game against the Cajuns, was knocked from the game last week against Louisville.  He'll miss about four weeks.  In his stead is E. J. Hilliard (6-3, 180, Fr., Miami), who completed 9-10 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.  He's known for having very good athleticism and is capable of running, even though he only ran it once on purpose (was also sacked once.)

In addition, the SBC rushing champion Kedrick Rhodes missed the game against Louisville, and his status has not been released for this week.  However, FIU has depth there.  Darian Mallary has rushed for 176 yards and six touchdowns and Jeremiah Harden is averaging 6.6 ypc.  And, running the football is FIU's bread and butter.

But the real question has been the number of points FIU has given up this year.  Many of the names on defense are familiar and Isame Faciane, Tourek Williams and Jonathan Cyprien are all preseason all conference players.  Yet, FIU gave up 46 to Duke and 38 to Akron the first two games.  They've been better the last two games against good competition, allowing 33 to UCF and 28 to Louisville.  Head coach Mario Cristobal has to be disappointed overall with the performance on the defensive end.

And, FIU has been abysmal in the kicking game.  Many of their fumbles (they've lost six) have come on special teams.  And, the normally reliable Jack Griffin is only 2-5 on field goal attempts.  They've allowed 21 yards per kickoff return and 14 yards per punt return.  The return game has been solid when they've held on to the football.

You would think this week that FIU will take some of the reins off Hilliard and give him a chance to make some plays.  What has made FIU's running game effective has been the ability of their quarterback to add a running dimension.  I'm sure they'll try to do that this Saturday.  I also expect them to do a little more with the passing game.  They probably know nine yards per completion probably won't do it unless then can run at will.

This will be an interesting matchup and looking at it, the teams are pretty evenly matched, except on special teams, where the Cajuns have a big advantage.

Hilliard might be the key for FIU.  Here's a freshman getting his first collegiate start in the toughest place to play in the Sun Belt Conference.  How he handles that situation will probably have a lot to say about who wins this game.