The lessons of 2007 can be seen all over USF's football program.
The frenzied buzz, the campuswide optimism, the unprecedented national exposure of last year's rise to No. 2 in the country still linger. The sting of three consecutive losses that followed, of a humbling 56-21 loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl also remain to motivate players and coaches.
The Bulls are back, well aware they won't sneak up on anyone in college football. They open the season ranked again, driven to stay there, to rekindle the same magic that brought the school's first sellout crowds last fall.
"Experience is valuable," coach Jim Leavitt said as his team opened preparations for its 12th season. "The experience of going through things allows you to feel more comfortable about situations. You don't react as much, and hopefully that will help us. We've been on TV quite a bit now, been in the limelight at different times. Our guys can get used to it."
TV? The Bulls already have six games on ESPN or ESPN2. Limelight? USF, ranked No. 19 in the preseason poll, was picked to finish second in the Big East, behind only a West Virginia team the Bulls have beaten in each of the last two seasons. It's reasonable to think USF would be favored in every game until the season finale in Morgantown, a potential conference championship.
Last year's rise and fall were unexpected for the Bulls, who aren't likely to be surprised by much they could encounter this time around.
"We went through everything. The ups and downs, the lows and the highs," junior quarterback Matt Grothe said. "We just need to keep not worrying about what everybody says. … We have a chance this year to get up there and stay there. It's about staying there and not falling off."
If the Bulls seek another 6-0 start, they'll need to shore up holes left on defense by the graduation of cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams and linebacker Ben Moffitt, all now in the NFL. There are still stars on defense, as defensive end George Selvie was the school's first consensus All-American after leading the nation in tackles for loss last year, and strongside linebacker Tyrone McKenzie set a school record with 121 tackles.
"We've got to shore up the middle of our defense," said defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, who will turn to unproven new starters in middle linebacker Kion Wilson, a junior college transfer, and a combination of sophomore nose tackles Sampson Genus and Terrell McClain.
There are very few holes on offense, where the Bulls return 10 starters and have proven depth at the skill positions. Grothe is back for a third year as starter, focused on limiting his turnovers after throwing for 29 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in his first two seasons. He has five of his top six receivers back, and the Bulls return all their running backs, led by senior Ben Williams and sophomore Mike Ford, who combined for 1,070 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
Just as last season escalated with early wins against Auburn and West Virginia, the Bulls again face early tests, hosting Kansas on Sept. 12 and opening conference play against No. 25 Pittsburgh on Oct. 2.
If the Bulls are 6-0 after the Pitt game, they get three bye weeks in the second half of the season, which includes a stretch of two games in six days at Louisville and Cincinnati in late October. The returning players know this season, like last year, won't be remembered for how it begins, but rather how and where it ends.
"We're looking to win the championship this year. We know we want nothing short of a championship," Selvie said. "Last year we always worked toward a championship, and now we know we can do it. We've been up there, we know we can beat anybody in the nation."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blog.tampabay.com/usf.
This FAll ...
SERIES PLOT: USF tries to prove last year's wild ride to No. 2 in the national rankings wasn't a fluke.
NEW FACES: CBs Jerome Murphy and Tyller Roberts have the biggest shoes to fill, but watch out for DT Sampson Genus and MLB Kion Wilson.
WILL BE A HIT IF …: The defense is as stout as last year and the offense can limit its turnovers and improve in the red zone.
Will be Canceled if …: The pass rush isn't enough and opposing quarterbacks can exploit the inexperienced cornerbacks.