TAMPA — Viewers were told the nationally televised revival of USF’s football program Friday night was going to be delayed by a lightning storm in the vicinity of Raymond James Stadium.
To be safe, you needed to check back later.
Probably in 2020.
When the best part of your season opener is the 55 minutes of alternative programming ESPN had to come up with during the thunderstorm, you know you’re going to be in for a long season.
The Bulls, who finished 2018 with six consecutive losses, managed to regress even more in the opening minutes of 2019. They were manhandled by Wisconsin and humiliated on a night when they essentially had the nation’s college-football-viewing audience all to themselves.
The only possible solace is if fans changed the channel during the delay.
Because there is ugly, and there is obscene.
And then there is what happened Friday night.
It’s not like anyone was expecting magic. Most of us know it doesn’t work that way. USF had taken a serious tumble last season, and it takes awhile to reinvent a program.
So what you should have hoped for Friday night was a reason to care.
Show us that the defense will not be bulldozed again. From the time the calendar turned to October last year, the Bulls gave up an average of 37 points a game. That wasn’t a slump; that was surrender.
Show us that the offense will zip more than plod. USF was fairly efficient moving the ball last year, but it couldn’t seem to find the end zone as often as its yardage total would indicate.
But USF showed none of that.
Especially on offense.
And that was supposed to be the one reason to tune in Friday night. New offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell was bringing a new pro-style spread formation that was going to fast, furious and fun.
Bell obliterated Division II offenses as the head coach at Valdosta State last year, winning the national title with a perfect record while putting up a staggering 52 points per game.
The offense does use the whole field.
Not very well.
Oh, I know, it’s early and a complex offense takes time to install. I also know No. 19 Wisconsin is no slouch, and the Bulls will probably not see many defenses as stout.
But there was very little about Friday’s performance that bodes well for the future.
Considering the Bulls were sending five receivers out on a lot of plays, there didn’t seem to be a lot of wide-open targets wandering around the Wisconsin secondary. And when quarterback Blake Barnett did find receivers downfield, Jernard Phillips and Eddie McDoom dropped passes in the first quarter when the outcome was still in doubt.
The spread offense is also supposed to create space for the running game. The idea is linebackers are so busy worrying about all those receivers, the running backs need only a small seam to bust loose.
Except there were no seams.
And definitely no one busting loose.
Even if you went into the game with realistic expectations, the results were still distressing. Staggeringly so.
The training-camp buzz was that the offense looked explosive. There was talk that linemen who got pushed around last season were now bigger and stronger. There were boasts that the worst memories of 2018’s collapse had been put to rest.
And now all of that is in doubt.
Maybe this was simply a case of USF running into the wrong team at the wrong time. And perhaps the Bulls will be able to put the pieces back together in time for the American Athletic Conference schedule.
But that seems like wishful thinking right now.
The gulf between the USF team that was ranked No. 21 barely 11 months ago and the team that showed up Friday night is wide, deep and scary.
And it’s hard to imagine that changing soon.