Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Colleges

USF football and the undefeated degree of difficulty

TAMPA — In the wake of the latest solar eclipse, USF fans eagerly await the next astronomical phenomenon.

Already, they can see the planets aligning gloriously for their 2017 team. Prolific quarterback, proven coach, comfy schedule — it's all taking shape.

Or it all could be an illusion. This type of cosmic convergence — an undefeated season — happens so rarely.

Try convincing veteran Plant High coach Robert Weiner there was no external force at work in 2006, when the Panthers finished 15-0 and won the Class 4A state crown. They even entitled their scrapbook of that surreal autumn, "Season in Sync."

"And that's because it seemed like not only was it just magical that we had kids with ability and we made a lot of plays and stuff like that, it seemed like every bounce went our way and we won every crucial moment," Weiner said. "Some of it was like, 'Wow.'"

Hence the reason Bulls fans momentarily may want to cool their jets on uttering the U-word.

USF, ranked 19th nationally, has arguably the best player in its history (Quinton Flowers) behind center. It's stocked at the skill spots. And the schedule includes only four teams that had a winning record last season, three of those at home.

But perfection remains as elusive.

"The players hear it, and you know how it is with anyone, they want to read about themselves," coach Charlie Strong said.

"And I tell 'em all the time, it's why you've got to get off social media, because that's the driving force behind it."

A pause here to quote coach Norman Dale — Gene Hackman's character in Hoosiers — before the Hickory basketball team took the court for its region final: "I'm sure going to the state finals is beyond your wildest dreams, so let's just keep it right there."

Let's examine those wildest-dreams:

Florida, which has been fielding a team since 1906, never has had a perfect season.

Florida State has had three in 70 years.

Miami? Three unbeaten seasons in 90 years.

"It is a matter of being really good, and it is a matter of being very fortunate," Weiner said. "And not to be pie-in-the-sky, but it is a matter of just the cosmic forces all aligning and the stars aligning for you."

Bulls running backs coach Shaun King was the quarterback on Tulane's 12-0 team in 1998. He is more succinct.

"You've got to get lucky," he said.

"Even when you're the best team, you've got to get a couple of good calls along the way, you've got to get a couple of good breaks."

Perhaps the luckiest break of that 1998 season was to King's left wrist — and not his throwing one — in an early win against Navy. Similarly, Weiner said his entire starting offensive line remained intact for all 15 games in '06.

Former USF receiver Andre Davis, a member of Jefferson High's 15-0 state title squad in 2010, recalls a potentially game-altering St. Augustine deep pass being negated by a holding call in the Dragons' 28-27 victory in the 3A state semifinals.

Similarly, FSU might never have capped a 14-0 season in the 2013 BCS title game had Auburn's Chris Davis not been whistled for pass interference on third and 8 from the Tigers 10 in the waning moments (FSU scored the next play and won, 34-31).

Weiner insists the Plant Panthers' staggering run of success (including four state titles) can be traced to the play before quarterback Robert Marve's winning 4-yard touchdown pass to Derek Winter with 17 seconds remaining in the 2006 state final against Ponte Vedra Beach Nease.

Marve fumbled near the Nease 5-yard line on the play.

"And there were five Nease Panthers there and no Plant Panthers," Weiner recalled. "And all of a sudden you saw one white uniform dart in underneath all of those guys, and it was Mike Walsh, our (180-pound) center. … It's like, 'Okay, these things don't just happen.' "

Good fortune is only one component. Other prerequisites for perfection include your best players improving, an unheralded player stepping up in a critical moment, cohesion, a collective focus and a strong veteran presence.

"You have to have great leadership, internal leadership, because the players only listen to the coaches so much," King said. "So you have to have some bell-cow guys that are gonna keep everybody motivated, focused and all rowing in the same direction. We had that at Tulane, and I think we have that here."

The clutch gene helps.

Tulane's unblemished season is blemished if cornerback Tim Carter doesn't bat down a Louisville pass at the goal line with only seconds to play in a 28-22 Green Wave victory. FSU's Jameis Winston went 6-for-7 for 77 yards on the Seminoles' winning drive against Auburn.

Miami's perfect 2001 season is toast if Ed Reed doesn't intercept a Virginia Tech pass at his 31 to preserve a 26-24 win in the regular-season finale.

As sure as Strong dials up blitzes, the Bulls will have a similar close encounter.

"You look at some of things we did last year: scoring touchdowns late, running up the score sometimes. People don't forget that stuff," King said. "So we're gonna get their best shot. Our guys have got to approach it as we're gonna be ready. We're gonna approach every game as if it's the biggest game of the season."

Then and only then can the Bulls hope to pull off a season of which dreams are made.

Wildest dreams.

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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