Monday, January 22, 2018
Colleges

USF Bulls bringing up rear in Big East football

Somebody has to be Kansas. Someone has to bring up the rear. Someone has to finish last.

Someone has to be the team broken down by the side of the road.

Someone like USF.

It is a dark time in the program. There are angry voices calling for the head of the football coach. There are frustrated fans wondering where all the progress went. There are restless students demanding to know where their program has gone.

A few weeks ago, a lot of people wondered if this would be the season the Bulls finally won the Big East.

Lately, the question is whether they will win in the Big East.

Somebody has to be Duke. Someone has to live in the smallest house in the neighborhood. Somebody has to play rightfield.

These days, USF has become one of those caboose programs. Every football conference has them. Iowa State. Washington State. Kentucky. Vandy. Ole Miss. Oh, they win a big game every now and then, and some years, they slip near the middle of the pack. Mostly, however, they lose. When they do, it doesn't surprise anyone.

Is this what USF has become? Are the Bulls the Little Train That Couldn't?

For the USF fan, this may be the worst realization of them all. Perhaps last place is the home of the Bulls, and perhaps this is the season the Bulls deserve. Perhaps they really are something less than Temple, something that aspires to be Ball State. Perhaps they are just a little program with big-program aspirations.

After all, somebody has to be Indiana. Somebody has to be the weakest link. Somebody has to be the runt of the litter.

Lately, that has been the Bulls.

Sitting in his office on a Tuesday afternoon, coach Skip Holtz weighs the question. He shakes his head at the suggestion that the basement is perhaps the Bulls' lot in life.

"No," he says flatly. "We're better than that. I honestly believe we can win here."

Outside, there are doubters. There hasn't been a USF season that felt this disappointing, when so much was expected out of a team that has accomplished so little.

The Bulls have lost four of six games this year, including games to Ball State and Temple. They have lost 11 of their past 14. They have lost 10 of their past 11 Big East games. They have lost momentum, and respect, and reputation.

Since Holtz's arrival in 2010, they are last in the Big East in conference wins. Worst of all, no one seems to know when they are going to win again. What's that they say? If you don't see a pushover on the schedule, it's because it's you?

Over the past 2 1/2 seasons, the Bulls have won four conference games. You know who else has won four? Duke. And Kentucky. And Vandy. And Minnesota. That's hardly the company a team wants to keep.

This is life at the bottom of the pile. The Bulls are in their eighth season in the Big East, and only one program — Syracuse — has been a member that long and won fewer games than USF's 21. The bad news? Soon, Syracuse won't even be in the Big East.

Remember those seasons that USF finished just out of the top 25? Those were the good old days. Scan the ratings of the computer sites that help make up the BCS poll. The Colley Matrix considers USF as the 97th-ranked team in the country, just behind Indiana (which has won 10 conference games in the Big Ten since USF entered the Big East). The Jeff Sagarin rankings have USF ranked the highest … at 71st in the country.

"The sky isn't falling," Holtz said. "When I say that, I'm not trying to minimize this. It is frustrating, and it is disappointing. I don't want to come across like it's not a big deal, because it is a big deal. We work hard to win. We don't work hard to compete or to be close.

"I still think we have a chance to be good."

Holtz looks haggard. There is stubble on his face, and his eyes sag from what he has seen. He does not sleep much or eat often. If you think this season has been ugly, you should see it from his eyes.

Still, there is a blunt question that has to be asked.

So, Skip, just how good are you as a coach?

Holtz pauses, choosing his words carefully.

"If you judge by wins and losses, then I'm not very damn good," he said. "I'm not going to sit and try to argue these numbers. I'm not going to try to sell them and make them look pretty. You can dress up a pig but it's still a pig.

"If you judge by the health of the program, the academics, the character of the kids … give me time and I think I can give you a lot better answer. The guys we brought in are freshmen and redshirt freshmen. I'd at least like to be here long enough to see them shave."

So, Skip, are you the guy to make this program essential?

"I believe I am," he said. "We've won everywhere we've been, and we've built it the right way."

That's the question, isn't it? Holtz has been at USF for 2 ½ years, and already, some want his head. His athletic director issued a "we'll see" statement on Tuesday.

Let's face it. USF has never had a season that justifies its expectations. Since 2005, when the Bulls entered the Big East, only Syracuse has won fewer games. USF has never finished a season in the top 10.

Still, underachievement is always disappointing. Even Holtz doesn't think the expectations on this season were wrong.

What we are left with, then, is massive disappointment.

Someone has to feel it. Someone has to be unhappy. Worst of all, someone has to be irrelevant.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM The Fan.

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