The timeless wisdom of sports tells us that you can only beat the teams you play on the days you play them.
The University of South Florida football team has been scheduled to play four games. It has won all four of them. The Bulls, within that narrow and small frame of reference, have done the most they can do through four weeks of the young season.
W. W. W. W. The sheet looks clean, and the value of that achievement is real: A bowl bid will definitely be part of USF’s December or January. Florida State can’t yet count on a bowl bid. USF can. That’s pretty good.
Yet, as much as “4-0” looks pretty and inspires a certain degree of confidence — there is something to be said for winning close games — let’s not try to pretend that the 2018 Bulls are a known entity.
We are about to begin to learn where USF stands — in the AAC at large, the AAC East Division in particular, and in the state of Florida.
Style points matter in College Football Playoff conversations and in New Year’s Six bowl conversations. In terms of the bottom-line business of winning and losing, they don’t carry much significance.
No need to worry about the style points with this USF team: The Bulls might have won every game they have played, but style points have been thrown out of the apartment… if they were ever allowed in to begin with. Without a fumble recovery just when Georgia Tech was on the verge of reestablishing a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, USF might be only 3-1... and Georgia Tech is the only half-decent team USF has played so far this season.
Moreover, Georgia Tech has tumbled to the bottom of the ACC since the loss in Tampa. USF has managed to stay afloat against Illinois and East Carolina, but the failure to land decisive knockout punches earlier in the game against a pair of bad teams does not inspire confidence for the road ahead.
This should not be seen as a particularly controversial thesis, as much as it might create some pushback: South Florida doesn’t yet know what it has.
Yes, Blake Barnett — having transferred from Alabama to Arizona State to USF — is trying to find a comfort zone, as one could very reasonably expect of a two-time transfer. The fact that he has not torched Illinois or ECU, while concerning, is still understandable. If you wanted to make the case that Barnett will become an excellent quarterback as this season evolves, you could marshal a convincing contextual argument.
What is harder to argue against is the reality that USF has far less proven skill-position talent compared to last season. The 2017 Bulls had Quinton Flowers as the trigger man, D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice in the backfield, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the perimeter. Those four players are gone.
Losing merely one of them is significant. Flowers, given his skill at football’s most important position (other than left tackle), left behind an enormous void Barnett is trying to fill. It is impossible to avoid the inconvenient truth: Unless or until Barnett and his 10 teammates win a game of considerable consequence — no, Georgia Tech simply doesn’t rise to that level, given its stumbles and fumbles at the start of 2018 — this team won’t be able to rise to the 2017 standard.
The schedule does look favorable, but one-score wins over the Illini and Pirates over the past two weeks have raised questions instead of answering them.
Duke is 4-0, having won at Northwestern and Baylor... but Northwestern lost at home to Akron and Baylor could very possibly go 2-7 in the Big 12 this year.
West Virginia is 3-0, but the Mountaineers didn’t get to play North Carolina State, and their Week 1 victim, Tennessee, was undressed by Florida this past weekend.
USF is like a number of other unbeaten teams in the FBS, teams that have taken care of business to the extent that they can, but have nevertheless played opponents which have not become formidable in their own right. The record might be perfect, but the quality of the resume simply can’t be elevated.
No, it is not USF’s fault… but the limitations of a month’s achievements remain conspicuous.
It is up to the Bulls to turn a thin resume into something more substantial, but right now, there’s no convincing evidence which screams and shouts that the Bulls are as good as their record. Charlie Strong, having endured a series of hard knocks at Texas, is all too aware of how quickly this industry — and Saturday results — can change in a negative way.
South Florida — even with its high-end talent in 2017 — struggled in a number of games against inferior opposition. The Bulls played well in the game that really mattered against UCF, but the Knights, playing the season of their lives, answered them in crunch time.
This year, South Florida cannot rely on its ability to pull close games out of the fire. The Bulls have to be markedly better in the coming weeks to reach the 10-win mark this season. If they continue to play very close to the margins, they will most likely get burned. The wisdom of history tells us so.
There are no preseason games in college football, but if Illinois and East Carolina were warm-up acts — test drives before the journey into the thick of the AAC season — perhaps South Florida is ready to leave a more definitive imprint upon this season.
The Bulls better hope so. The level at which they have played through four weeks might have been good enough to go 4-0, but it is most assuredly NOT good enough to get them where they want to be in early December.
USF takes the “Back-loaded Backroad”
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.
USF-UCF get one last chance to breathe
People in the state of Florida are gearing up for Decision 2018 — oh, and also the upcoming elections.
Yes, for college football fans in the Sunshine State, the big moment of truth this November is focused on this unfolding drama: whether the UCF Knights will remain unbeaten and #ChargeOn to a second straight “New Year’s Six” bowl against a Power 5 conference school with a glossy brand name?
UCF’s attempt to pull off the NY6 double play — becoming the first Group of 5 team to make back-to-back appearances in a signature bowl since the new postseason format began in 2014 — is an important national story. It also will affect McKenzie Milton’s chances of getting an invitation to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Tua Tagovailoa is the runaway favorite for the award, even at this relatively early juncture in the journey to December 8 in New York, but Milton has a strong chance at a ticket to the Downtown Athletic Club if he runs the table for a second straight regular season.
The team which might have the best chance of standing in UCF’s path is the other Florida-based team in the American Athletic Conference. South Florida engaged UCF last year in a classic game — probably a better game than the AAC title game against Memphis a week later. The Bulls played their best game of the year BY FAR… and still lost to the Knights in Orlando.
USF was not unbeaten in that game, but it had only one loss, meaning that a win over UCF would have given USF the AAC East Division title and a chance to win the conference championship against Memphis. In that 2017 season, Charlie Strong led the Bulls through several close shaves. The team didn’t figure to be in UCF’s league, but it played the Knights on even terms and left a memorable imprint on a quality season.
This year, we could very easily see the same scenario. So many stars are aligning… but there is reason to pump the brakes on the optimism surrounding the 2018 edition of USF-UCF, this time in Tampa.
As in 2017, USF is dodging landmines left and right.
Georgia Tech, Illinois, East Carolina, and most recently, Tulsa have all made USF sweat... but the Bulls found the magic needed to pull off a trick and somehow emerge alive from two sets of chains in a box placed underwater. USF is once again the best escape artist in the AAC. The hope in Tampa is that this team can find a higher gear so that it won’t continue to live on the edge.
The problem: After this Saturday, USF and UCF — but especially the Bulls — will not face an easy schedule. USF plays Connecticut Saturday while UCF faces East Carolina. Those are the last layups for these teams. Then, the slate gets much harder.
UCF has to prepare for everyone’s best shot, as anyone would naturally expect for a team with a target on its back. However, UCF gets the biggest non-USF contests of the season at home. USF is the team which could lose more than once before the UCF finale, which would take the air out of the balloon and force the Bulls to be nothing more than a spoiler in late November.
Whereas UCF gets Cincinnati (an unbeaten team) and Temple (unbeaten in AAC play) at home, USF must face those two teams on the road, in what will likely be cold November conditions. USF also has to go to Houston, where the Cougars are not easy to beat. USF had a great team in 2016, but it could not solve Temple in Philadelphia. Winning in the Northeast or Upper Midwest is a challenge for Florida-based teams later in the season.
Just ask Miami how that November trip to Pittsburgh went last autumn.
If the road for USF has been bumpy thus far, it will only get more turbulent for the Bulls, who will have to improve their level of play if they want the UCF game to have conference championship implications for both schools.
This won’t be an easy run for UCF. Cincinnati, Temple and USF are all currently unbeaten in the AAC East. This division has — through half of the season — held up much better than the ravaged and feeble West, in which Navy and Memphis have both taken huge downward tumbles in the standings. Nevertheless, UCF is a more proven team than USF and won’t have to leave the state of Florida for the Temple-Cincinnati-USF trio of games.
What are the odds of another USF-UCF showdown for all the marbles in the AAC? Not great, but this much is clear: The far bigger burden rests with the Bulls than the Knights. Charlie has to make his team Strong-er in order to create a 2018 reunion on par with the 2017 classic that Floridians won’t soon forget.
USF escapes Tulsa with dramatic 25-24 comeback win
It wasn’t pretty, and it was against another bad team, but USF pulled off a dramatic 14 point comeback Friday night in Tulsa for a thrilling 25-24 win. The Bulls had been living dangerously in their previous three games against bad opponents pulling out wins over Illinois, East Carolina and UMass in the second half of them all. Friday night it looked like they were done.
The Golden Hurricane, just 1 – 4 on the season, put together four complete quarters of solid football and two long second-half scoring drives to set the stage for the possible huge upset of the Bulls.
However, even though the Bulls struggled for much of the night to get any sustained offense or drive rolling, they eventually would get on track.
Trailing 10-3 at the half, the Bulls got on the board when their top weapon all season, running back Jordan Cronkrite ripped off a 66 yard touchdown run to even the game up at 10. That put Conkrite over a hundred yards (151) rushing for the fourth consecutive game.
However, there was no quit in Tulsa. They put together their key third quarter scoring drives and running back Shamari Brooks capped off both with 10 yard touchdown runs each time. The second Drive was an 88 yarder and it put the Golden Hurricane up 24 – 10.
Tulsa was playing with confidence that it had not shown for much of the year with four losses in five games and that included 16 turnovers, as well.
But, the Bulls finally got their offense sustained midway through the fourth quarter, when quarterback Blake Barnett led a 14 play, 82 yard drive that he capped off with a 1-yard scramble run for the touchdown. Tulsa blocked the extra point to maintain a 24 – 16 advantage.
USF was able to force a punt and then quickly marched 80 yards in 10 plays and Barnett again scrambled in from 12 yards out to cut the lead to two at 24 – 22. With only 2:09 remaining the Bulls decided to try to tie the game with a two-point conversion.
Tulsa’s defense rose to the occasion and stuffed a scrambling Barnett on the two-point play.
Still, USF just kept making plays and got three stoops of Tulsa, used two timeouts remaining and got the ball back.
That’s when the real dramatics took over.
First, USF was aided a roughing the passer personal foul with under :40 to play that gave them a first down in Tulsa territory. Then Barnett fired a bullet downfield to receiver Tyre McCants for 32 yards down to the Hurricane five yard line with :08 left.
Barnett did most of his statistical damage in the fourth quarter finishing with 237 yards passing and 24 more rushing with the two TDs.
The Bulls got to the line and calmly spiked the ball with :05 left.
Kicker Coby Weiss booted the 22 yard field goal for the win at 25-24.
The “Houdini” escape for the Bulls puts them at 6-0 for the second consecutive year and only the third time since the program became FBS in 2001.
Tulsa was bidding to beat a Top 25 team for the first time in eight years. Alas, they came up a point short and are now 0 for 15 against ranked teams since 2010.
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