By Joey Knight
TAMPA — Naturally, the minutes and hours after USF’s first loss of 2017 featured excruciation in bulk. The wounds caused by Houston’s surreal winning drive were fresh and festering.
The Cougars’ 50-yard kick return? Brutal. Their fourth-and-24 conversion? Back-breaking. A 20-yard touchdown scramble with 11 seconds to go? Ball game.
"I’ve never seen a team so down," coach Charlie Strong said of his USF squad.
Down, but hardly out.
For all the short-term damage that the 28-24 loss at home last week did to the Bulls’ psyche, it barely dented their season.
And it just might have recharged their spirit.
"It gave us back our chip (on the shoulder) and gave us back that underdog vibe," senior nickel back Deatrick Nichols said.
The unranked Bulls (7-1, 4-1 AAC) arrive in East Hartford, Conn., today with every significant goal still in play. They still control their own destiny in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division and appear destined for a New Year’s Six bowl berth if they win out.
The College Football Playoff selection committee’s top-ranked Group of Five conference champion earns that New Year’s Six bid. No. 18 UCF (whom the Bulls play Nov. 24) and No. 23 Memphis (the likely AAC West champ) are the only Group of Five teams ranked.
Take care of business against UConn (3-5, 2-3) and Tulsa (at home Nov. 16), win in Orlando on Black Friday (Nov. 24), prevail in the AAC title game, and the Bulls seem like a Peach Bowl lock.
"The best thing we have going now is it’s still there in front of us," Strong said.
The second-best thing? The Bulls now seem refocused and refueled, not to mention a little dissed.
"After you lose, you have to refocus," senior tailback Darius Tice said.
"You have to look back and see like, ‘Okay, what went wrong?’ And it definitely makes you want to go out there and prove it to the world, and I’d say just prove it to each other. Prove it to the teammates just to know like, ‘We got this, we’ve got everything under control.’?"
Of course, proving something to the world helps when disrespect is palpable.
That underdog vibe Nichols mentions? There’s a tangible component to it now.
Instead of having to manufacture a no-respect narrative, Strong can point directly to the Associated Press and CFP rankings. USF was 17th in the AP poll before dropping out of the top 25 after the loss to Houston.
It also didn’t appear in the initial CFP rankings released Tuesday.
"You can use it as fuel," Strong said.
"It’s there, so it’s not like you’re making it up. … Facts are facts. This is what they think of us. Now we have a chance to go show everybody what we’re really all about. And can we bounce back, and can we be that team everyone says we are?"
By all accounts, practices have been crisp and loose this week. The final minutes are open to the media, and the general mood has seemed light as players trot off the field. Many rib one another. Some are ribbed by Strong.
Disappointment seemingly has given way to decompression. With some disrespect tossed in.
"You see a lot more focus (in practice)," senior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez said.
"I think the spotlight for us wasn’t necessarily what we needed. I think when you look at USF football, you look at a group of guys that probably always had something to ’em that someone didn’t believe in ’em. And I think that’s the position we like to play at … people doubting us."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.