The inspiration for these rankings came from esteemed colleague Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle, who recently did the same exercise for the Cougars’ slate.
Bulls fans should feel pretty good when assessing the ’19 schedule as a whole. The opener is a doozy, but the most formidable American Athletic Conference stretch doesn’t occur until November, and three of those four games are at home.
Collectively, it’s formidable and appealing without being daunting, which nicely suits a program trying to climb its way back to respectability.
Now, on to the rankings (team’s 2018 record in parentheses).
12. at Connecticut (1-11), Oct. 5
The Huskies defense, under yet another new coordinator (Lou Spanos), would have to show significant improvement to reach mediocrity. Last year’s historically bad unit allowed 50.4 points a game and nearly 9 yards per play. Hard to see the AAC’s resident lame-duck team making any kind of quantum stride in 2019. Grim fact: UConn is the last team the Bulls defeated (Oct. 20, 2018).
11. vs. South Carolina State (5-6), Sept. 14
It’s worth bearing in mind the Bulls haven’t exactly rolled over Division I-AA competition in recent years (see Stony Brook). The Bulldogs won five of their last seven games in 2018, and return junior quarterback Tyrece Nick, who totaled nearly 2,100 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. The defense allowed more than 200 rushing yards a game, but is expected to improve significantly.
10. at Georgia Tech (7-6), Sept. 7
New coach Geoff Collins’ shameless enthusiasm and innovative methods (post-practice water slides) can’t shroud the fact he inherited a roster designed for the triple-option. The transition to a 21st-century spread will require time. The likely starting quarterback, Lucas Johnson, threw for more than 2,500 yards as a prep senior, but hasn’t attempted a pass in three seasons in Atlanta.
9. at Navy (3-10), Oct. 19
The Midshipmen are too prideful and too well-coached to stumble a second consecutive season. Navy runs essentially the same kind of midline triple-option that Georgia Tech employed last season, when it amassed 419 rushing yards on the Bulls. The big question is on defense, where coach Ken Niumatalolo overhauled things (replacing five assistants) after Navy allowed 426.4 yards a game in ’18.
8. at East Carolina (3-9), Oct. 26
Don’t be shocked if new coach Mike Houston transforms ECU’s culture and fortunes in pretty short order. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers (6-foot-3, 235 pounds), who totaled more than 2,300 yards as a part-time starter last year, appears poised for a breakthrough. Overall, the Pirates should be much better than the team that darn near upset the Bulls in Tampa (a 20-13 USF win) last season.
7. vs. SMU (5-7), Sept. 28
If you think Charlie Strong tapped into the NCAA transfer portal, check out the Mustangs, who reportedly added 16 transfers in the offseason. “The transfer thing, for us, is a gold mine,” second-year coach Sonny Dykes recently told the Dallas Morning News. Among the newcomers: former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman in 2016.
6. vs. Temple (8-5), Nov. 7
Based on the Owls’ returning personnel and new coach Rod Carey’s sparkling resume at Northern Illinois (52-30, six bowl trips), I’m banking on Temple to be a tough out come early November. Its defense, which returns no fewer than a half-dozen starters, led the nation with eight defensive touchdowns last season (including one against the Bulls).
5. vs. Memphis (8-6), Nov. 23
Though many pundits ― from Kirk Herbstreit to conference media ― pick the Tigers to win the AAC West, I have my reservations. Most of the starting defense returns, but that unit (5.6 yards per play in ’18) remains a liability until it proves sturdier. Moreover, coach Mike Norvell has two new coordinators. Memphis can score in bunches, but it scored a lot last year and still lost six games.
4. vs. BYU (7-6), Oct. 12
Cougars sophomore Zach Wilson, last seen completing all 18 of his passes in a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl romp of Western Michigan last December, has expectations spiking in Provo. So does BYU’s veteran defense, which ranked 18th nationally (324.1 ypg) last fall. Three of the Cougars’ defeats last year were by five or fewer points. Dangerous, dangerous mid-season game for USF.
3. vs. Cincinnati (11-2), Nov. 16
I strongly contemplated ranking the Bearcats even higher, and still wouldn’t be shocked if they take down UCF in Cincinnati on Oct. 4. Luke Fickell’s team is every bit as loaded offensively as USF, and possesses a more proven defense (4.7 yards per play in ’18). Tailback Michael Warren, who shredded USF for 151 rushing yards and three touchdowns on a frigid November night last season, returns.
2. vs. Wisconsin (8-5), Aug. 30
The suffocating, seasonal humidity projected for Friday night should benefit the Bulls. So should the fact the Badgers will roll out a refurbished offensive line featuring four new starters. But the matchup of Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor against a USF defense that struggled mightily against the run last year should make Bulls fans cringe. This game will tell us tons about Bulls football in ’19.
1. at UCF (12-1), Nov. 29
This ranking isn’t so much an endorsement of new starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush as it is the speed merchants around him (Adrian Killins, Greg McCrae, Tre Nixon, etc.). Considering the loss of McKenzie Milton, and how badly the defense was exposed down the ’19 stretch, I can’t see the Knights posting another unbeaten regular season. Nonetheless, this will be the fastest team the Bulls face.