TAMPA — The deeper one bores into the bowl slate, the more the notion seems reinforced. It was clear by how Houston was fleeced by San Diego State and how UCF went flat against Arkansas State in their bowl games.
Things happen to teams between the regular season and the bowl season. Some lose their edge, or their momentum. Or even their coach.
"It kind of (doesn't) look the same," USF senior outside linebacker Nigel Harris said. "Something was missing in those bowl games."
That leads us to the 25th-ranked Bulls (10-2).
Few teams have experienced more upheaval this month. The Bulls have lost one head coach (Willie Taggart) and gained another (Charlie Strong), and temporarily are being guided by a third (T.J. Weist). For all of Strong's in-state accomplishments, the players still approach 2017 with the uncertainty that accompanies a regime change.
So it's natural for USF fans to ponder the state of their team's collective psyche entering today's Birmingham Bowl against South Carolina.
Are the Bulls merely going to show up or (as Taggart might put it) show out?
"These guys are motivated," Weist said. "This team has a lot of pride. There's a reason we won 10 (games), and we won 10 because of the pride of this team and the determination."
Such sound bites might do little to alleviate fans' concern, especially in the wake of a handful of American Athletic Conference teams delivering dreadful bowl performances.
Houston, which also has experienced a coaching change this month, was embarrassed 34-10 by San Diego State in the Las Vegas Bowl. That same night, UCF spotted Arkansas State 17 points in a 31-13 loss in the Cure Bowl — in Orlando.
And Memphis was torched by former USF quarterback Mike White (336 passing yards, three touchdowns) in Western Kentucky's 51-31 romp in the Boca Raton Bowl.
But a different dynamic surrounds USF: The Bulls arguably have far more to play for at this juncture than, say, Houston or UCF.
An 11th win would be unprecedented at USF. So would a top-25 finish, which the Bulls almost certainly will clinch with a triumph against an SEC foe. Additionally, Strong will attend the game, observing from athletic director Mark Harlan's box. For underclassmen, it's a chance for a solid first impression.
"Even though I won't be here (in 2017), it will be a huge boost to go out 11-2, on top of an SEC opponent, probably going into the next season ranked," senior safety Nate Godwin said.
"All that, it would be a great way for Charlie Strong to start out his (USF) career. … I know there's a lot of distractions and adversity with Coach (Taggart) leaving and things like that, but I think we've kind of got tunnel vision right now. We're focused on getting 11 (wins), and that's the main goal."
For at least a few moments, that focus regressed into friction with an ugly scrum at the end of practice on campus Dec. 22. At least three players were ordered off the field, and Weist could be heard lighting into the team during its traditional postpractice huddle.
Afterward, players and coaches insisted the scuffle was the by-product of an intense, offense-versus-defense team period waged in full pads.
"We needed a little intensity out here," Weist said, "so we had a little more intensity … and that's how we wanted it."
A fan base and an ESPN audience will find out today if those hostilities were indeed the sign of a driven team on a year-ending mission or the symptom of one in disarray.
"A lot has happened to us, but there ain't no fear in my heart, because even though we had the different (coaching) changes and everything going on, we stayed together," senior left tackle Kofi Amichia said.
"We're a team. I don't know what happened over there at Houston, but with us over here, we're staying together, and we're making sure that we try to go out and get that 11th win."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]m. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.