CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As victories go, yes, this one could have ended a little more smoothly. After all, USF had spent most of the day leaving hoof marks over the team known for its paw prints. It could have closed out the final period without nearly as much turbulence. It could have won by a larger margin and left a larger impression.
On the other hand, the Bulls chalked up another victory over another team with a brand name. Even the harshest critic would have to admit a 31-26 victory over Clemson was mostly good.
As bowl games go, granted, this one could have had more impact. It could have been in prime time with ratings and championships at stake. The joint could have been packed, and the networks could have been parked outside. There could have been more noise, more excitement, more pressure.
That said, any time they hand a team a trophy, it's a pretty good day. All in all, you have to admit that USF's victory over Clemson in Friday's Muffler Bowl was mostly good.
As seasons go, true, this one also could have been a little bit sweeter for the Bulls. It could have involved two more victories, maybe three. It could have been the season that launched a thousand recruits. It could have been the year that USF finally looked like a contender in the Big East.
Looking back, however, it was a nice first step for a new coach. If you are grading, you'd have to say this about Skip Holtz's debut season: It, too, was mostly good.
This is what happens when a team gets a big victory in a small bowl game. It makes a team's followers search for the proper perspective. It makes them think about what the season was and what it might have been. It makes them think about what next year might be and about what is good enough. It makes them think about goals and games and the coach who is in charge of both.
This is just a guess, but here's what I'll bet most USF fans are thinking today.
Yeah, this season was mostly good, all right.
But it wasn't good enough.
Let's face it: USF has been in the college football business long enough to want more. It wants bigger bowls and better records and higher rankings. For goodness' sake, who doesn't? Even Holtz, in his postgame news conference, started talking about winning the Big East as the next step. And as USF fans would say, bully for him.
Let's face it: If the Bulls can play the way they did for most of Friday's game, it would help. Finally, the offense was un-muffled. Finally, the defense was in control. Finally, quarterback B.J. Daniels had all of the answers. If the USF offense had played like this against UConn, or against Syracuse, or against Pitt, who knows where the Bulls might have spent the bowl season?
No, this was not one of the great Clemson teams. Still, this Clemson team had a 17-point lead over future No. 1-ranked Auburn, and it took Florida State to the last play. And for most of the day, USF was comfortably in charge. For USF — whose bowl wins had come over Memphis, East Carolina and Northern Illinois — it was a win worth keeping.
Say this for Holtz. He knows USF fans aren't pleased with the team's record. Heck, it has done 8-5 too many times in recent years. Holtz admits the record is disappointing because his goals are grander than that, too.
Still, a season isn't only about wins and losses. Sometimes, it's about beginnings.
"Looking back, I'd say this season was very positive," Holtz said. "I say all the time, it's a journey and not a destination. People may look at an 8-5 record and not see that as successful. But when you look at the foundation that has been laid down, the attitude, the togetherness, the hard work, the chemistry, the atmosphere, it's been a very successful season.
"We're three plays away from being 11-2 and winning the Big East and being in a BCS bowl. When you think about that, it's one of the more rewarding years I've had."
Under Holtz, there was no late-season fade. Under Holtz, there were no 25-point losses. Under Holtz, the Bulls — especially Daniels — seemed to get better late in the season. Good things, all of those.
Ah, but here's the burning question: Can Holtz take the Bulls from here to the next level?
There were shortcomings to this Bulls team. It wasn't particularly fast, and it wasn't particularly nasty, and NFL scouts don't seem overly impressed with the talent. In other words, there is a lot of recruiting to do, and so far, those who tend to grade recruiting in December seem underwhelmed.
"I'm not trying to win February," Holtz said, an edge rising in his voice. "I want to win in the fall. Too many people are trying to win in February, and they're chasing stars. I feel great about the players who have made the decision to commit here. How someone else grades them is irrelevant to me.
"We've got to put our name in that living room. If we can turn and represent the Big East — and you can do that one or two years in a row and have the opportunity to play in some of these BCS bowls — then I believe we have a chance to put that fence around Hillsborough County."
That's the challenge, of course. To win, a coach has to recruit better. To recruit better, he has to win.
Perhaps Friday, a mostly good day in a mostly good bowl, will help with both goals.