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  1. USF Bulls

USF football wants success with no mistaken identity

“People think UCF,” USF coach Charlie Strong says. “ 'Hey, aren’t you on that team that went undefeated?’ A lady in Atlanta asked us that. I told her no, we weren’t that team.” (CHRIS URSO | Times)
Published Aug. 13, 2018
Updated Aug. 13, 2018

TAMPA — There will be new football uniforms for USF this season. One of three versions is green and gold. Nothing new there. But the head coach is focused on its new twist: "South Florida" spelled out on the front of the jersey. The same goes for his players.

"The only thing they're concerned about is the 'South Florida' across the chest," Charlie Strong said. "I want people to know who we are when we walk out and play."

The idea was reinforced in the offseason.

"People think UCF," Strong said. " 'Hey, aren't you on that team that went undefeated?' A lady in Atlanta asked us that. I told her no, we weren't that team."

No, USF wasn't that team. It wasn't UCF. That was USF's great sin in 2017. The Bulls finished in the Top 25 and won 10 games in Strong's first season, one a remarkable bowl win, a righteous followup to Willie Taggart's 11 wins on the way out the door to Oregon and now Florida State.

But the real problem was down the road in Orlando, where AAC rival UCF made a dream-sequence 13-0 run to its fictional national title. USF was second fiddle. Ten wins, no matter.

"It just means we have to keep getting better and improving," Strong said. "I don't know the number, but we have to have a good year. We had 11 wins and 10 wins the last two seasons. … No, 7-6 won't work this season."

At least Strong is back. And here I thought he would fly out of here after one good season, back to a Power Five job.

But here he is. Maybe there weren't enough chairs when the music stopped. Does it matter?

"What people need to realize is that I'm not here to run out," Strong said. "People think I'm going to run out. Once people see I'm here to run this program, we can build on it. I want to be here. I really am happy to be here."

Whether you believe him or not (a football-only facility might convince me), the fact is that there is a new coach at FSU, a new coach at Florida (Dan Mullen) and, yes, a new coach at UCF, where Josh Heupel replaces departed miracle worker Scott Frost.

"I'm the vet," Strong said, grinning.

There are time he thinks back to 2017, to that fourth and long USF gave up in a stunning October loss to Houston that ruined any idea about a perfect season. Or he thinks about coming up short in that showdown at UCF in one of the best games of the college football season. It's hard not to think about the Nov. 23 rematch with UCF in Tampa.

Ten wins might be a reach for this USF team. The three-headed battle for starting quarterback (my bet is on the big arm of Alabama/Arizona State transfer Blake Barnett) speaks to the loss of the sensational Quinton Flowers, only the best player in USF history.

The key might be not missing a beat to start the season, like in that early game in Tampa against a decent Georgia Tech team. And it's about taking care of business in Chicago in a return-date bear trap against Lovie Smith and his seemingly awful Illinois team. USF can't look past anyone. Hey, I'd be worried about the trip to UMass.

"The thing you got to do is come out and play well early," Strong said. "If you can do that, you can gain fan interest."

Fan interest. What's that?

"It hasn't been easy," Strong said. "But we just haven't built that consistency year in and year out, where fans know we're going to be good. It's a tough sell. Even with the media. But if they see something good in the program, they'll jump on board. … It's about gaining a foothold."

Strong will be working with a new athletic director in Michael Kelly, who replaces Mark Harlan.

"I think there's an effort being made to get us a facility," Strong said. "That's got to be a game changer for us. Michael knows. There's no telling how far you can take this program. I really believe that."

Strong doesn't dwell on it, but he still sees that fourth-and-long conversion by Houston. He still sees four missed tackles on that kickoff return at UCF. I guess that's what championship seasons are made of, even UCF's fictional one. Think USF wouldn't have traded places? Strong thinks he would have handled 13-0 a little differently. No proclamations, no parades, no boasts of being No. 1.

"I told Harlan we wouldn't have done that," Strong said. "We would have just been happy to be undefeated."

Guess you'd have to go 13-0 first to prove it.

Time for USF, or South Florida, to make a name for itself. Charlie Strong's name is back.

"It's a good kind of pressure," Strong said, "I love that. Good job. Now do it again."

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com
or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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