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USF Bulls hope for dramatic 2012 turnaround

TAMPA — What USF football seeks to do this fall, going from a single conference win to a single conference championship in a single year, is obviously not an easy transition to make.

If the Bulls, 1-6 in the Big East in 2011, can flip the standings and win the conference crown this fall, going to a BCS bowl game, they'll do something no team has done in the past decade. Eighty-seven teams in the top six leagues have finished with one or zero conference wins over the past decade, and just one has made a BCS bowl appearance the following year — Illinois in the 2008 Rose Bowl, and only because Ohio State played in the national title game.

As dramatic as such a leap would be, Skip Holtz will assure you it would require no actual magic.

"I said when I came in here, we're not going to win because we have wiffle dust we're going to sprinkle on everybody and amazingly we're going to build this program," Holtz said. "It's going to happen over time, and it's going to happen when we change the culture and the players buy in and they understand what our expectations are. That's where I feel like we're going. I believe the wins follow that."

So last year's 5-7 record was a difficult step backward in wins and losses, to be sure, but this spring, Holtz saw real progress behind the scenes, in academic progress, in offseason commitment, in leadership emerging among a deep senior class. USF's players and coaches, despite having lost seven of their last eight games, enter this season with confidence, thanks to a mix of veteran leaders and the slow-burn motivation supplied by last year's painful run of hard-luck, last-minute losses.

Unique circumstances help the Bulls as well: There may never be a clearer path to a conference title. West Virginia is gone to the Big 12, but next year's new arrivals including Boise State, Houston and Central Florida aren't there yet, nor is the conference championship game that comes in 2013. The Bulls have four home games out of seven Big East games. All that sets up a chance to turn a parity-driven league upside-down.

"I think it's a compliment to the league that a team that finished in last place a year ago is one of the preseason favorites to win it," Holtz said. "I don't think there's another league that's going to be able to say that."

If the worst-to-first turnaround seems improbable, Holtz points to the major steps his team has already made off the field. For four consecutive semesters under Holtz, the Bulls have reset the best team grade-point average in the program's history; by December, 19 of this year's 20 scholarship seniors should have their undergraduate degrees, with several working on second degrees.

That, he believes, is what makes an unlikely leap truly possible. Of those 87 teams with one or no conference wins, nearly half — 47 percent — went on to win one or no conference games again the next year. Barely 10 percent went on to win five or more league games, as the Bulls should need to take a Big East crown.

Holtz's players aren't the only ones believing in this year's potential. Athletic director Doug Woolard gave him a three-year extension this summer, though one that won't give him more than a nominal raise until the Bulls are back in a bowl game.

Pull it off, and Holtz will be proud, but he'll be prouder of the way his players have reached their success.

"You can just go recruit and throw talent on the field and win, but there's no foundation, no stability," Holtz said. "If you ask your alumni base, we could have gone 11-1 last year and had 50 players arrested and had 10 kids on probation. Do you want it? Some may. ... Others would say no, I'm not willing to sell the morality and the program just for some wins. ... Others want to see your players graduate, to do it the right way with character, quality people, I think they can see behind the curtain."

So close, so far

USF lost five games last season by one score. Here's a breakdown of the Bulls' 2011 heartbreak:

Date Opponent Score The difference maker
Oct. 15 UConn 16-10 Byron Jones' 10-yard fumble recovery for touchdown.
Oct. 22 Cincinnati 37-34 Zach Collares' 2-yard touchdown run with 12 seconds left
Nov. 5 Rutgers 20-17 (OT) Brandon Coleman's 34-yard touchdown reception in regulation; San San Te's OT field goal.
Nov. 19 Miami 6-3 Jake Wieclaw's 36-yard field goal as time expired
Dec. 1 West Virginia 30-27 Tyler Bitancurt's 28-yard field goal as time expired


So close, so far

USF lost five games last season by one score. Here's a breakdown of the Bulls' 2011 heartbreak:

Date

Opponent

Score

The difference maker

Oct. 15

UConn

16-10

Byron Jones' 10-yard fumble recovery for touchdown.

Oct. 22

Cincinnati

37-34

Zach Collares' 2-yard touchdown run with 12 seconds left

Nov. 5

Rutgers

20-17 (OT)

Brandon Coleman's 34-yard touchdown reception in regulation; San San Te's OT field goal.

Nov. 19

Miami

6-3

Jake Wieclaw's 36-yard field goal as time expired

Dec. 1

West Virginia

30-27

Tyler Bitancurt's 28-yard field goal as time expired

.fast facts

Area players

JaQuez Jenkins, Jr., S, Lakewood; Lindsey Lamar, Sr., RB, Hillsborough; Terrence Mitchell, So., WR, Hillsborough; Bobby Eveld, Jr., QB, Jesuit; Julius Forte, Jr., DE, Boca Ciega; Mark Popek, Sr., OL, Plant City; Andre Davis, So., WR, Jefferson; Ruben Gonzalez, So., WR, Robinson; Mike McFarland, So., TE, Blake; Andreas Shields, Sr., TE, Wharton; Ryne Giddins, Jr., DE, Armwood.

USF Bulls hope for dramatic 2012 turnaround 08/24/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 24, 2012 9:40pm]
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