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In bleak season, USF still has plenty on the line at UCF

The 2019 Bulls can rescue their legacy, and possibly their coaching staff, with a victory in Orlando.
USF coach Charlie Strong after the loss against the Memphis Tigers at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 23. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
USF coach Charlie Strong after the loss against the Memphis Tigers at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 23. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 28, 2019

TAMPA ― Bowl hopes were dashed last week. Reasonable title aspirations evaporated last month. The general sentiment of the fan base has transitioned from unhappy to unhinged.

Meantime, USF is playing out a string that very well could have pink slips attached to its end.

“It’s been so frustrating all year,” first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said.

MORE BULLS: Kerwin Bell hopes USF offense seizes final opportunity at UCF

An autumn of unforeseen mediocrity wraps up Friday night at Orlando’s Spectrum Stadium when the Bulls (4-7, 2-5 American Athletic Conference) try to avoid a third consecutive loss to rival UCF (8-3, 5-2).

They head to Orlando with their leading rusher (Jordan Cronkrite) sidelined, second-leading tackler (Patrick Macon) questionable, and leading passer (Jordan McCloud) nursing a sore thumb on his throwing hand. Not surprisingly, USF, loser of three in a row, is a 23½-point underdog.

As for Charlie Strong’s odds of making it through the weekend as Bulls coach? Take Saturday and the points.

“It’s been tough,” tight end Mitch Wilcox said.

Yet amid this rubble of missed tackles and missed kicks, crippling injuries and questionable clock management, something of great value still can be salvaged. Upset the Knights, and this season isn’t a wash.

Far from it. History repeatedly has shown one landmark victory can transform a team’s legacy from mediocre to memorable.

The 1984 Alabama team suffered the program’s first losing season in 27 years (5-6), but upset Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Pitt’s 2007 squad went 5-7, but shocked No. 2 West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl. Memphis’ 1996 team went 4-7, but remains immortalized for stunning Peyton Manning and Tennessee.

“The great thing about college football is, the very next week you get to go out and compete and right wrongs from the past weeks,” Wilcox said. “So this will be a big week for us definitely. We’re gonna go out and compete and give it our all.”

Consider the dividends of a USF upset: Bragging rights for long-suffering Bulls fans. A seismic momentum shift in the “War on I-4” rivalry. A possible momentum swing in recruiting.

And maybe ― just maybe ― a reprieve for Strong and his staff.

“No matter what the season ended up being, if you can end it in a victory, especially versus a rival and a team as highly respected as UCF, it gives us something to hang our hat on for next year,” defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said.

“And it gives these seniors something to kind of poke their chest out about and say that they were able to end their career on a positive note.”

Back to Strong. Would a win save his job? Should it?

It’s a complicated debate, with layers of considerations. Can USF afford to part ways with Strong, whose buyout is believed to be roughly $5 million? Can it afford not to dismiss him? Would things have been different with a healthier roster? Would a victory prove he never lost the confidence of his players?

MORE BULLS: For USF football, defeats haven’t led to dissension (yet)

“Everybody that plays for him loves him,” senior safety Devin Studstill said. “So what somebody says on the internet doesn’t affect us at all. Doesn’t affect the way I look at him, doesn’t affect the way the team looks at him, because we love him and we’re gonna play for him.”

If that sentiment’s prevalent in the locker room, the incentive to win Friday is ratcheted up.

Knock off the Knights, and the 2019 team might rescue its coach and its legacy.

And a Black Friday is remembered as a breathtaking one.

“We’re always fighting for the next win, and wins are hard to come by,” Studstill said. “So especially a win against a team like this will definitely feel better.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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  8. USF guard David Collins, left, goes up for a shot against Memphis forward D.J. Jeffries during the second half of the Tigers' 68-64 triumph Sunday at the Yuengling Center. [CHRIS O'MEARA  |  AP]
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