In order to size up the University of South Florida Bulls at the midpoint of the 2018 college football season, one needs to look at other examples of teams which started brightly in September, but then hit a landmine and got blown up in October. This might not be a fun read, but what is life if not a sometimes-cruel existence which often demands the ability to face up to inconvenient realities and soldier on anyway?
USF shouldn’t be the kind of person who goes, “Lalalalala, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”, and tries to ignore what other well-meaning citizens wish to tell them. The Bulls don’t need a load of bull to be fed to them. They need the honest truth right now, so that they can become a much better team. They will need to be better if they want to avoid the scenarios I am about to point out below:
It is a familiar part of every college football season: the back-loaded schedule.
A sunny, happy 5-0 or 6-0 start feels like liberation. It smells like an awakening. It carries the intoxicating scent of progress and ascendance…
We don’t need to drag out this conversation. We merely need to point to very recent examples of teams which entered the midpoint of the season unbeaten, and then got their butts kicked by opponents which were talented but were far from elite.
Colorado was unbeaten heading into Week 7. Then it played USC, a not-that-great team already saddled with two losses and far from the height of its powers. USC thumped Colorado — no, not by anything close to 30 or 40 points, but the final margin — 31-20 for the Trojans — did not begin to reflect how badly USC beat — and beat UP — the Buffaloes, who were completely outclassed at the line of scrimmage. USC led 28-7 entering the fourth quarter and still did not play anywhere near its very best. Colorado forged its unbeaten start on the back of a schedule which included still-winless Nebraska, a one-win UCLA team, a cratering Arizona State squad which just lost again to Stanford on Thursday night, a bad Colorado State team, and an FCS team (New Hampshire).
Front-loaded schedules are often a reason for a perfect record heading into mid-October.
Let’s take just one other example to hammer home this point: West Virginia.
The Mountaineers weren’t universally regarded as a team with Big 12 championship ambitions. Plenty of WVU skeptics existed, pegging the Mountaineers as a team headed for a 7-5 or 8-4 finish this year. However, some people certainly felt the ‘Eers had a chance to win the Big 12, and after Texas, Oklahoma and TCU all lost, Dana Holgorsen’s team rose to No. 6 in the polls heading into Week 7.
Yes, the Cyclones are a decent team — they regularly put up a fight against the elites of the Big 12 these days. More precisely, they put up a good fight to an extent they rarely did before Matt Campbell came to Ames. They will probably beat the lower-end teams in the Big 12 and make a bowl game. They have already played the toughest teams on their schedule. They are better than their win-loss record says they are.
Nevertheless, if West Virginia really was the sixth-best team in the United States, and really was a Big 12 title contender, it wouldn’t have lost the way it did to the Cyclones.
This was a bloodbath in Week 7. Iowa State was plus-16 in first downs, 25-9 The Cyclones gained 346 more yards, 498 to just 152 for the Mountaineers. Iowa State won time of possession by 15 minutes, 37 and a half to 22 and a half. West Virginia’s 14 points came off a short-field touchdown drive following an interception of Iowa State, and a blocked field goal return for a touchdown. The final score easily could have been 33-0 if ISU had been able to do a better job of merely getting out of its own way.
No one should have expected Iowa State to easily beat West Virginia, but plenty of people saw an ISU victory in this contest. West Virginia, much like Colorado, hadn’t played any particularly good team in its unbeaten start: Tennessee, Youngstown State, Kansas State, and Kansas are all not good. Tennessee is improving, but improving is not the same as “good.”
West Virginia did win at Texas Tech, a result which could qualify as a strong win, but Texas Tech took advantage of teams at TCU and Oklahoma State which are in the middle of dramatic, ugly nosedives, not mild regressions or slight downward movements. A lot of people are praising Texas Tech’s newfound defense right now. I think we have to wait until the Red Raiders face Texas and Oklahoma to see how truly good that defense is.
The point remains: West Virginia had a front-loaded schedule. That was the foremost reason for the Mountaineers’ perfect start.
This brings us back to South Florida.
Connecticut in Week 8 is a layup, but then come the big tests in a back-loaded “Bull run” through the second half of the 2018 schedule:
Houston. Cincinnati. Temple. UCF. Those four teams are all unbeaten in ACC play as of Friday, October 19. They won’t all be unbeaten when USF plays each of them, because they will begin to play each other in the intervening weeks, but they do represent the upper half of the conference. USF will be judged in 2018 based on how it handles those four games.
4-0? Print that ticket to the AAC Championship Game for a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl.
3-1? Most likely nothing… unless the one loss does NOT come against UCF. Nevertheless, 11-1 would be an incredible job by Charlie Strong this year, after losing the elite skill position players from the 2017 roster.
2-2? Not richly satisfying, but hardly a disaster. 10-2 would still be a helluva season under these circumstances.
1-3? The air would go out of the balloon if this happens, and it is a very realistic possibility.
0-4? That would be the disastrous scenario — unlikely but not to be completely written off.
USF was in this same basic position a year ago, as anyone who follows the program is well aware of. The Bulls lost twice down the stretch, but they played a classic against UCF. Playing well is in many ways the ultimate point of importance for this team. People who care about a program are mature enough to distinguish between a team which fails because of unaddressed flaws and a team which fails because opponents play better.
The essential observation to make about South Florida before this back-loaded schedule in 2018: If the Bulls do play better, the results — in an unsteady AAC which is about to get shaken up in the East Division — will probably reflect such an improvement.
The Bulls need to carry the load on a backloaded back road through the teeth of the AAC East. It’s about to get real in Tampa.
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