TAMPA — USF held its first fall practice Monday. A mere technicality. It's mind-bending how many people think that USF, sure to be ranked in the preseason Top 25, is going to throw down a 12-0 regular season with the schedule placed before it. This from a team that has never won a conference championship in its previous 20 years of existence.
But that's what the talk is, the expectation. And it should be. USF is favored to be the Group of Five representative in the New Year's Six bowl picture. Athlon has USF headed for the Peach Bowl. Phil Steele's Football Preview has USF down for the Cotton Bowl. Charlie Strong is following Willie Taggart. USF is coming off 11 wins, the best year in its history.
Now it has to go have ... the best year in its history.
Strong smiles over at all the talk.
"Do we have to play the season?" he said. "That's what I'd like to say: Do we really have to play the season?"
They really have to play the season.
The schedule is agreeable, meaning weak. USF should be favored in every game it plays. Its five road games are against teams that had losing records in 2016. Its toughest conference games, on paper, are at Raymond James Stadium. There can't be one slip-up, like that disaster at Temple last season.
And let's get this out of the way: Even if USF goes 13-0, even if it wins the American Athletic Conference championship game (it has never played in one), it has no chance at making the College Football Playoffs.
It's nothing personal.
No Group of Five team has a chance.
Strength of schedule, or lack of it, dooms the Bulls. USF ranks 124th in the FBS in opponents' 2016 win percentage at 42 percent (63-85). Phil Steele's Football Preview lists USF with the nation's 110th toughest schedule in 2017. Florida State is off the schedule. Stony Brook is on it. The CFP committee leans heavily on strength of schedule. It's a lousy year for USF to have maybe the best team in its history.
Not that it would matter. The system isn't rigged for any Group of Five dreamer. USF fans need to know that, and also accept the fact that anything close to perfection would mean Strong is out of here, to Power Five pastures.
Look at Western Michigan in 2016. The Broncos went 13-0 and beat a couple of Big Ten teams, albeit Northwestern and Illinois. For all that work, when the final CFP rankings were released, Western Michigan finished 15th, behind six three-loss Power Five teams (including FSU) and even one four-loss team (Auburn). True, Western Michigan went to the Cotton Bowl. It also lost head coach P.J. Fleck, who was hired by Minnesota.
The best thing this USF team has going for it is a senior-laden group that went through dreadful stretches (2-10 in 2013) before those 11 wins last season. That's important as USF prepares for its opener at presumably lightweight San Jose State. Ask senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez.
"If we go out there and take San Jose lightly ... you were here for McNeese State," Sanchez said.
The 2013 season-opener, Taggart's USF debut. McNeese 53, USF 21.
"We're not sitting around here saying we're going to win the American Athletic Conference championship today, tomorrow, whenever," Sanchez said. "We were a 2-10 program, so to be in that conversation is nice. But to be honest, we haven't done much."
We're a million miles away from 13-0, no playoffs, Charlie leaving. What a great problem that would be. USF making a New Year's Six bowl would be an astounding milestone. You're telling me Bulls fans wouldn't take that right now?
Meanwhile, USF held its second fall practice Tuesday.
They really have to play the season.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly