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.
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