TAMPA — The USF Bulls hit the football practice fields Tuesday in full pads. Practice wasn’t open until late. I watched through the gates for a while, from a distance, which is just the way to watch USF as it enters a third season under Charlie Strong.
From a distance, that 7-0 start to the 2018 was heady stuff. A spotless record stood out. Then, up close and personal, came the death drop for Strong and his team, the monumental free fall of six straight losses, including an ignominious bowl loss at home to Marshall.
Where do Strong, who won 10 games his first year in Tampa, and his Bulls go from here after 7-6? They are chasing Florida, and even Florida State, in their own state. And now I-4 rival UCF, preseason ranked, has stirred things up on the heels of its mythical national title in 2017 and 12-win followup, poking USF with a stick for signing deals that gives it one home game to two road games against Florida and Alabama.
“We’ve got to quit worrying about everybody else,” Strong said. “We’ve got to worry about where our team is and where our team needs to be.”
Things got away from Strong and the Bulls last season and then some. There was that grisly home loss to Tulane. There was that blown 17-0 lead at Temple. There was the defense that couldn’t stop anyone, the discipline that was fleeting and the leadership that never showed up after the Quinton Flowers-Auggie Sanchez Bulls produced 21 wins across consecutive seasons.
“At the end of the day, were we a nine-win team last season, 10-win team?” Strong said. “We weren’t. It would have given us false hope. We wouldn’t be working the way we were this offseason. What happened last season woke us up. It woke up the whole program.”
Yes, UCF is the team to beat in the AAC. Again. Yes, the Knights have that bouncy on-campus stadium.
“If you make things like that bother you, you’re never going to make progress,” Strong said. “Let’s take care of ourselves. Before I ever got a head coaching job, it bothered me, but I wasn’t going to use up all my energy concerned about that, because if I had, I would have never gotten a job.”
Back to the job at hand. I think eight wins are possible for this USF team. Nine might be a stretch. It all begins on a Friday night late this month when Wisconsin comes to Tampa to pound the rock, led by Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor, who has raced for 4,171 yards in two seasons. Gulp.
“That’s one of those games, it can be a program changer,” Strong said.
I’d hope for rain and a slow track.
Is USF on track or an also ran?
The offense might be fine. It has solid, skilled pieces, beginning with senior quarterback Blake Barnett, a great running back in senior Jordan Cronkrite, a super tight end in senior Mitchell Wilcox and an open threat in sophomore receiver Randall St. Felix.
And there is new offensive coordinator and former Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell, who once upon a time put the Gators on the map even as Charley Pell didn’t follow the NCAA’s directions. Bell just led Valdosta State’s high-powered offense to a Division II national title, but knows people are waiting to see how he does on a bigger stage.
Nothing new there. Strong was a graduate assistant at Florida in the 1980s when Bell was the last quarterback on the Florida depth chart.
“I’ve been doubted my whole life,” Bell said. “I’ve been a failure a lot of times in my life. Got cut seven times by NFL teams. One thing I’ve been able to do is be persistent. Ball is ball.”
Strong likes his OC.
“He’s going to attack the field.”
Bell likes his quarterback.
“In this system, he’s going to make some big-time throws,” Bell said of Barnett. “He can make NFL throws. We just got to get him out from under making big mistakes. Don’t try to win the game every snap. Take what’s there. If he stays ahead of the chains, he’s going to make some big plays.”
The problem, as it was last season, is the USF defense, which ranked 104th in the nation, allowing a gruesome 446 yards per game. It is bigger this year, but is it better? Defensive end Greg Reaves will be leaned on. In fact, Strong will be searching for leaders on both sides of the ball.
“Last year’s team, it lived off the year before,” Strong said. “Guys like Quinton, Auggie, they carried the team since they were sophomores. Their junior year they go 11-2. Their senior year they go 10-2. These guys last season had never led before, and never figured it out because they never had to figure it out. They were 7-0, they were rolling.”
Then they weren’t.
“We have to worry about us,” Strong said. “You can’t worry about what someone else does or what someone else has. We’ve got to get away from making excuses.”
Whether you’re looking through the fence or practicing inside it, it seems like the smart play for USF in 2019.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.