Here at halftime of USF's season, even the most scrutinous of Bulls fans likely agree their team has met expectations.
We find out in the second half if they meet history (e.g. first conference title, first 10-win season, etc.). That pursuit continues Saturday at home against Connecticut.
But to occupy your time during this intermission, in lieu of a marching band we offer a midseason report.
The greatest gauge of a player's value is to envision what the team would be like if he weren't around. The loss of running back Marlon Mack? Costly for sure, but the Bulls still have D'Ernest Johnson and Trevon Sands (and they've won a game without Mack). No Rodney Adams? Ouch, but there are plenty of receivers to help compensate.
But imagine this team without Quinton Flowers. Granted, the junior still has his moments of inaccuracy and inconsistency, but the Bulls can live with that when he continues exerting grit, vocal leadership and arguably the greatest elusiveness of any quarterback in USF history (and that's saying something).
Flowers leads USF in passing (1,322 yards, 11 TDs, three INTs) and rushing (78 carries, 498 yards, four TDs), totaling 303.3 yards a contest. And while his occasional one-hop throws on short routes drive fans nuts, his pass efficiency rating (155.8) is the second best in the American Athletic Conference.
Tough to argue against middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who leads the Bulls in tackles (54), tackles for loss (five) and sacks (three). Running a not-so-distant second is senior weakside linebacker Nigel Harris, enjoying his best season as a Bull after mildly slimming down (to around 225 pounds) in the offseason. Harris' game-clinching interception Saturday against East Carolina was his second of the year, and his 38 tackles trail only Sanchez.
The Bulls' laughable average victory margin (26.6 points) likely has caused most to overlook the effectiveness of first-year punter Jonathan Hernandez, but the FSU transfer has evolved into what coach Willie Taggart calls "a weapon." Hernandez is averaging 41.7 yards on 31 attempts, with nearly half (15) pinned inside the 20. Two weekends ago at Cincinnati, he put three inside the 10. If former placekicker Marvin Kloss was known as "Money," maybe it's time to dub Hernandez "Coin."
To this point, the offensive line has gone mostly unnoticed by casual fans, which is always a good thing. Despite graduating three starters, the Bulls are allowing 1.17 sacks a game, fewest in the AAC. Some of that can be attributed to the elusiveness of their quarterback, but we doubt Flowers' efficiency rating would be so lofty if he were always throwing on the run. Speaking of run, the Bulls also have the league's second-best rushing offense (260.5 ypg).
We were set to slap this designation on the 104th-ranked run defense (209.8 ypg) until we saw the turnout for Saturday's 38-22 win against East Carolina.
Less than 10 days before Big 12 honchos meet to potentially pick an expansion team or two, the Bulls drew the smallest homecoming audience (actual crowd of 16,585, per the Tampa Sports Authority) in program history. Granted, the effects of Hurricane Matthew may have kept a segment of fans away, and nothing short of a personalized on-campus parking space could coax many students to travel across town for a noon kickoff.
We also realize it was hot, but here's the thing: USF can do nothing about the start times (determined by the AAC's television partners) or humidity, both of which come off as flimsy excuses when the Bulls are delivering the most entertaining offense in program history. USF has proven it draws well against marquee opponents, but the big-time programs — which USF aspires to be — draw well even against mediocre ones.
"You always hear people talk about us being a sleeping giant. It's not just the football team that's sleeping. Everybody's got to wake up and become that giant and make it what we know it can be. We've all got to build it together. I say we all — us, our fan base, our community — we've all got to do our part in helping make Lee Roy (Selmon)'s vision become a reality." — Taggart, speaking a few days after the Bulls drew an actual crowd of 22,626 for their 56-20 opening win against Towson
Bulls win AAC East, fall to Houston in league championship game on Cougars' home field. … Bulls top UCF by less than a touchdown in regular-season finale. … USF accepts invitation to play in Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 29 at Legion Field. … Before Bulls arrive in Birmingham, Taggart is offered a job at a Power Five program in the Southeast.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.