TAMPA — They're just not quite there yet. They're not quite ready for the big time.
Not for 60 minutes. Not at college football's highest level. Not against a real national power like Florida State.
For about 10 minutes on Saturday, the USF Bulls looked like they belonged, like they could play with any team in the country. But by the time it was over, as FSU put the finishing touches on a 55-35 blowout that really wasn't as close as the score suggests, it was clear:
USF just isn't ready for the big stage.
Hey, it's not all bad. The good news for USF is that there are other stages to perform on. Respectable stages. All of USF's realistic goals — winning a conference title, playing in a good bowl game — are still in front of them and still very much a possibility.
This is no longer a program wandering aimlessly. It's not a rudderless vessel with no captain to lead it or no hope of getting better.
But this notion that USF is ready to take the step from a nice little program to one that can play with the big boys? Nope. Not yet.
The difference between USF and FSU is much greater than the juxtaposition of a couple of letters.
"I looked at this game as an opportunity for our football team to get a little more respect nationally," USF coach Willie Taggart said. "We were on national TV and we had a chance to go out and show everyone and get the respect that you're trying to get. We didn't take advantage of that. We played sloppy and we lost focus."
No one should be surprised by Saturday's result. Florida State is better than USF. A lot better. FSU might even be a little down by FSU standards this season, and it is still way better than USF.
I mean, come on, was anyone surprised by this? Did anyone who watches college football with an objective eye really think USF was going to knock off the Seminoles? Did anyone besides USF fans think this game was going to be that close?
Furthermore, there's nothing to be embarrassed about. FSU has laid the hammer down on plenty of schools.
Still, the loss likely will leave USF and its fan base, which tends to overestimate just how far along this program is, a bit shaken. The eyes of the USF faithful remain bigger than their stomachs. That's why they take losses such as Saturday's so hard.
"Hurts," USF defensive tackle Deadrin Senat said. "Hurts bad."
Clearly, USF saw this date with FSU as a chance to make a statement. Buoyed by a 3-0 start, including a nice comeback against Syracuse last week, the Bulls went into Saturday's game believing it could upset FSU. They probably thought that even more after seeing FSU get stomped by Louisville a week ago.
USF must have felt even more of its oats when quarterback Quinton Flowers connected with Rodney Adams for an 84-yard touchdown pass on the game's first play from scrimmage.
"Just like we drew it up," Taggart said. "But we didn't expect to come out and give up a 75-yard touchdown on their first play."
That's how it went for the first few minutes. USF scored and FSU had an answer. Pretty soon, FSU had way more answers than USF. For a good chunk, FSU had all the answers. The Bulls had a 14-7 lead and a couple of blinks later, FSU was up 45-14.
When it was over, the number showed just how far away USF is from Florida State.
The numbers in FSU's favor were eye-popping: 82-55 in plays, 40:19-19:41 in time of possession and, in the most glaring difference, 647 yards of offense to 450. And while yards are yards and USF never quit, much of what USF did offensively came well after this game was decided.
It was a disappointing end to a day that started off so optimistically.
"A loss is always disappointing, but it's a learning process, too," Adams said. "We know what we have to do win these type of games and the next opportunity we have, we're going to take advantage of that."
Actually, there's no reason to believe that USF knows how to win these games quite yet. If FSU and USF were to play 100 times, FSU might win 98, with USF prevailing only if FSU played like dog food.
But, this isn't meant to dump on USF. Okay, so the Bulls can't hang with FSU. Most schools can't. But that's no reason to give up on Taggart's bunch. This remains a fun team to watch, and the rest of the season is well worth watching.
There is still plenty to play for, starting with next week's game at Cincinnati.
"The rest of the games are conference games, and our goal is to win the conference," Taggart said. "Everything we want is in front of us. … We've got to put this game behind us. There is nothing we can do about it now."
Some day, USF might play FSU and it will be on equal terms, maybe even with the winner playing for a national title.
But as of right now, that day seems very, very far away.