The Golden Panthers started the season off red-hot, going 3-0 which included impressive wins over non-conference foes Louisville (24-17) and UCF (17-10). Cristobal's team then hit a mid-season slide, losing four of six, before ending the regular season on another three-game win streak.
They finished fourth in the Sun Belt at 5-3, which was good enough to earn a trip to their second straight bowl game as they faced off against Marshall in the Beef'O'Brady's Bowl. Even though they lost that contest, 20-10, it was still a fine season for the squad overall.
OFFENSE: FIU was one of the more efficient teams on offense in the conference last season. While its 369.7 yards per game ranked just sixth out of 10 teams in the Sun Belt, its 26.3 ppg scoring average was third.
The loss of quarterback Wesley Carroll will not be easy for the Golden Panthers to overcome after he threw for 2,374 yards, 14 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions in 13 starts in 2011. Redshirt sophomore Jake Medlock is expected to take over under center, and he was impressive in limited opportunities last season, completing 37-of-56 passes (.661) for 376 yards and a touchdown.
Though 1,000-yard receiver T.Y. Hilton has moved on to the NFL, the Golden Panthers retain some experienced pass-catchers for Medlock to throw to, including Wayne Times (54 catches, 540 yards, 2 TDs) and Jacob Younger (21 catches, 286 yards).
Running back Kedrick Rhodes is coming off a fantastic season, as led the team in rushing (1,194 yards) and rushing touchdowns (8). Behind an experienced offensive line, which returns all five starters, Rhodes is poised to have a solid junior year. Rhodes suffered a minor injury in FIU's spring game, and while it doesn't appear to be serious, backups Jeremiah Harden and Shane Coleman have gotten plenty of reps this summer.
DEFENSE: The calling card for the Golden Panthers a season ago was without question their defense. They surrendered just 347.6 yards per game, third-best in the conference, and its scoring defense (19.4 ppg) ranked just percentage points behind Arkansas State for the top yield in the Sun Belt.
The great news for the Golden Panthers is that the unit comes back nearly exactly as it was in 2011, with 10 of 11 starters returning to what is sure to be a reliable and experienced group.
FIU had one of the strongest linebacking corps in the Sun Belt a season ago, anchored by Winston Fraser (108 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble) and Jordan Hunt (85 tackles, 4 sacks), and they should improve as both football players and leaders with another year of experience under their belts.
The defensive line is just as experienced, with ends Tourek Williams and Greg Hickman combining for 24 tackles for loss and 10 sacks a season ago, while tackle Isame Faciane added 8.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks.
Defensive backs Johnathan Cyprien (81 tackles, 1 interception), Sam Miller (63 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries), Jose Cheeseborough (59 tackles) and Richard Leonard (47 tackles, 3 interceptions) should all be in contention for All-Sun Belt Conference honors at year's end.
With such an experienced unit, Cristobal is excited to see what his defense will do this season.
"I like the fact that we're known for defense," Cristobal said. "I'm a former lineman so that's my mentality, but we expect to get after people on defense. Being good defensively is an advantage, as long as we still play good on offense and on special teams. We were able to do that at the end of the year last year."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jack Griffin is an experienced, accurate kicker, having made 22- of-26 field goal attempts last season. He has a strong leg as well, making 6- of-8 from 40 yards and beyond. Josh Brisk averaged 42.3 yards per punt, with 16 of his 61 attempts being placed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Hilton's impact in the return game will obviously be missed (834 return yards in 2011), but Times has just as much speed.
OUTLOOK: Although the losses of offensive leaders Carroll and Hilton make that side of the ball a bit of a question mark this year, FIU still retains enough talent on offense to put up solid numbers.
But the biggest key to the Golden Panthers' success remains its stout defense, which should take another big step forward this season after showing great improvement from 2010 to 2011. The strength of that unit is making FIU one of the early favorites to win the Sun Belt, but Cristobal doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself.
"We accomplished some of our goals (last season) but not all of them," Cristobal said. "Any time you focus on polls to set your goals, you're going to have problems."
If things go according to plan, Cristobal and company should be heading to their third straight bowl game.