TAMPA — The conference title is lost, but USF seems to have found something.
The calendar creeps toward Thanksgiving, but the Bulls exude an early September spryness. Instead of hitting a wall, they seem to have hit their stride.
"They're fired up," coach Willie Taggart said.
A one-game offensive renaissance can do that. Seems the prolific Halloween-night debut of freshman quarterback Mike White has invigorated more than just the fan base.
"Mike White, he just brought a new life to the offense," junior left tackle Darrell Williams said.
What awaits the Bulls (2-6, 2-2 American Athletic Conference) in this second life remains anyone's guess. But if White's 311-yard, two-touchdown effort at Houston is any harbinger of the final third of the season, the Bulls have an outside shot at experiencing reincarnation as a bowl contender.
"I think everybody — our defense, special teams — was excited with the performance of our offense, even though we didn't get the win (at Houston)," said Taggart, who watched White hook up with a season-high 10 receivers in that 35-23 loss.
"But just to see that we do have an offense that can go and see a resemblance of what this can be, I think it got everyone fired up. We've always said if we can get our offense going, we'll be set. I think that sparked everyone and got everyone excited."
Should the momentum carry over into the regular season's final stretch, USF could stage the most flourishing finish in program history.
Three of the remaining four games — at home against Memphis (2-6) and Southern Methodist (3-5), and Dec. 7 at Rutgers (5-3) — appear winnable. But the Bulls will be a decisive underdog Nov. 29 at 15th-ranked UCF (7-1), which could lock up the conference title that day.
Still, a 4-0 stretch run, and accompanying bowl eligibility, is at least conceivable.
The mathematical chances, and White, clearly have the Bulls stoked.
"I think they've seen now, 'All right, (the offense) works,' so they're more excited at practice," offensive coordinator Walt Wells said. "They're doing the little things that I think will help us as we move forward here."
Crucial to this postseason quest is White's progression from his first start to the second, which takes place Saturday against Memphis.
While efficient (26-for-41) at Houston, the 6-foot-4, 186-pound freshman was sacked twice in the fourth quarter, once on third and long at midfield. While consistently hitting his spots, his offense was whistled for seven false start or illegal formation penalties.
And as Taggart is quick to remind, the Bulls lost that game. Additionally, Memphis will have one luxury Houston's defense didn't possess: video of White.
The Tigers, who operate out of a three-man front, rank third in the conference in total defense (338.6 yards per game) and pass-efficiency defense (119.4).
Coaches "are going to find out what he does and how he reacts to certain situations, and the things he does that they think they might be able to exploit," Wells said. "I think that will be interesting to see, how he handles some success, people patting him on the back. … He's been around it for a long time, and he's been successful before, so he understands you're only as good as your last game."
Yet the consensus seems to be USF has more than a one-hit wonder behind center.
Several players concur that White, nocturnal in his game preparation, often is left to turn out the lights at the Selmon Athletics Center. They laud his poise, his relaxation in the huddle.
And based on the vibes they collectively emit, he has restored vigor, vitality and hope.
"We have four games to prove to everybody that we should be a bowl team," Williams said. "We're taking it one game at a time right now, one practice at a time, and we're just trying to achieve that goal."