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Ranking USF’s 2020 football foes, worst to first

The Bulls’ slate, bereft of even one cupcake, has been ranked the second-toughest in the nation.
Memphis defensive back T.J. Carter (2) breaks up a pass intended for USF receiver Randall St. Felix (5) during the first half of last season's 49-10 Tigers rout at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls travel to Memphis for the rematch Nov. 7.
Memphis defensive back T.J. Carter (2) breaks up a pass intended for USF receiver Randall St. Felix (5) during the first half of last season's 49-10 Tigers rout at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls travel to Memphis for the rematch Nov. 7. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Sep. 8, 2020
Updated Sep. 8, 2020

Initially, we planned to offer our annual ranking of USF’s opponents — from worst to best — in early July.

But those plans were thwarted by a fluid situation in a year teeming with them.

Now that the Bulls’ reconfigured 11-game schedule is complete, and that elusive season opener is less than a week away, we proudly offer our rankings in belated form.

Related: What will college football look like during the coronavirus pandemic?

Before proceeding, we guarantee with stern conviction the quality of these rankings will range between spot-on and spotty. Last year, we ranked UCF as the Bulls’ toughest foe, followed closely by Wisconsin. Then again, we ranked SMU and Georgia Tech No. 7 and 10, respectfully.

Teams are listed with their 2019 record in parentheses.

11. vs. East Carolina (4-8), Oct. 10

East Carolina running back Demetrius Mauney, left, is among at least eight returning offensive starters for the Pirates in 2020.
East Carolina running back Demetrius Mauney, left, is among at least eight returning offensive starters for the Pirates in 2020. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Jeff Scott and Co. will have four games under their collective belt when the Pirates arrive at Raymond James Stadium. A recent 12-day practice stoppage (due to COVID-19) certainly didn’t help the Pirates, who still have glaring defensive concerns. Presumably, the Bulls will have found some sort of groove — on both sides of the ball — by kickoff of this game. If they emerge from it with a 3-2 record, they should consider extending Scott’s deal on the spot.

10. vs. Tulsa (4-8), Oct. 23

Tulsa's Shamari Brooks (3) is a prolific running back who may give opponents fits.
Tulsa's Shamari Brooks (3) is a prolific running back who may give opponents fits. [ SUE OGROCKI | Associated Press ]

The Golden Hurricane return a 3,200-yard passer (Zach Smith), 1,000-yard rusher (Shamari Brooks), seasoned receivers and a veteran offensive line from a team that knocked off UCF and lost to Memphis by only a point. A couple more converted field goals, and Tulsa might have made a bowl last season. (Cringe alert: We’re only on No. 10, folks).

Related: USF football’s ‘eternal pessimist’ has Bulls defense hopeful

9. vs. The Citadel (6-6), Saturday

Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey (16) is comfortable running the offense, putting up more than 2,000 total yards last season.
Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey (16) is comfortable running the offense, putting up more than 2,000 total yards last season. [ MIKE STEWART | Associated Press (2019) ]

This game has an awfully similar vibe to USF’s 2013 opener, which also featured a new Bulls coach making his debut against a Division I-AA foe. Seven years after McNeese State’s 53-21 embarrassment of Willie Taggart, The Citadel’s well-oiled triple-option appears capable of doing the same to Scott’s team if it isn’t careful. While the Bulls will be trying to get their bearings in a new offensive and defensive system, the Bulldogs will roll out a confounding old-school offense and fleet of veterans including quarterback Brandon Rainey (2,114 total yards, 30 touchdowns in 2019). On the flip side, USF will put more talent on the field, and The Citadel’s staff can’t be sure of what the Bulls offense will look like.

8. vs. Navy (11-2), Nov. 21

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo must replace Malcolm Perry, who set a Division I-A record for rushing yards by a quarterback (2,017) last season.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo must replace Malcolm Perry, who set a Division I-A record for rushing yards by a quarterback (2,017) last season. [ TOMMY GILLIGAN | AP ]

Part of the reason Scott scheduled The Citadel was to help the Bulls prepare for Navy. That said, nobody runs quite the type of midline scheme the Midshipmen have brandished for years. Coach Ken Niumatalolo was hoping to use the spring to settle on a new quarterback in the wake of record-setter Malcolm Perry’s departure, but spring practice was canceled. Additionally, Niumatalolo opted to forego virtually all live contact in August as the pandemic lingered. It showed in Monday night’s 55-3 humiliation at home against BYU. We’re certain USF will see a different Navy team when it arrives in Tampa in late November.

Related: Every Florida 2020 college football game, ranked from worst to first

7. at FAU (11-3), Sept. 26

New Florida Atlantic coach Willie Taggart has a 16-32 career record in his first year at a new program.
New Florida Atlantic coach Willie Taggart has a 16-32 career record in his first year at a new program. [ JC RIDLEY | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

The most intriguing matchup on the Bulls’ schedule. USF could be the first team in collegiate history to face two of its former head coaches (Jim Leavitt, Willie Taggart) in the same game. Additionally, both Bulls coordinators (Glenn Spencer, Charlie Weis Jr.) had the same jobs at FAU last season. The Owls offense, bolstered by some transfers, seemed poised to sparkle before two-year starting quarterback (and first-team all-Conference USA pick) Chris Robison’s departure in August. Additionally, Leavitt had some major defensive replenishing to do upon his arrival. It’s worth noting Taggart’s career record in his first year at a program is 16-32.

6. at Temple (8-5), Oct. 17

Temple wide receiver Jadan Blue, right, and his sure hands are always a threat to opposing teams.
Temple wide receiver Jadan Blue, right, and his sure hands are always a threat to opposing teams. [ JULIO CORTEZ | Associated Press (2019) ]

The Owls were hoping to stabilize some of their defensive issues (they lost their top six tacklers from 2019) in the spring, but logged only two practices before being shut down. On the flip side, they’re seasoned at the offensive skill positions. Six-foot-4 quarterback Anthony Russo is back for his senior year (though he is being challenged), as is 1,000-yard receiver Jadan Blue.

5. at Houston (4-8), Nov. 14

Houston kicker Dalton Witherspoon (47) converted a school-record 14 consecutive field goals as a junior last season.
Houston kicker Dalton Witherspoon (47) converted a school-record 14 consecutive field goals as a junior last season. [ MICHAEL WYKE | AP ]

We’re expecting second-year coach Dana Holgorsen to bounce back after a debacle of a debut season. To the surprise of no one, quarterback D’Eriq King bolted (to Miami) after deciding to redshirt four games into 2019, but Clayton Tune ― the guy who replaced King ― is back. So is a solid ensemble of skill guys. Defensively, Holgorsen reloaded his secondary with no fewer than four Power Five transfers.

4. at Cincinnati (11-3), Oct. 3

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) is another veteran under center that USF will have to figure out how to solve.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) is another veteran under center that USF will have to figure out how to solve. [ BUTCH DILL | Associated Press (2019) ]

In case you hadn’t noticed the trend, Cincinnati will be one of nine USF opponents that returns its starting quarterback. Third-year starter Desmond Ridder lost some key members of his supporting cast, but gained Alabama transfer (and Armwood High alum) Jerome Ford in his backfield. Defensively, the Bearcats return seven starters and one of the best coordinators (Marcus Freeman) in the league.

3. at Memphis (12-2), Nov. 7

Memphis quarterback Brady White passed for more than 4,000 yards last season, when the Tigers won the American Athletic Conference title.
Memphis quarterback Brady White passed for more than 4,000 yards last season, when the Tigers won the American Athletic Conference title. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]

So why are the reigning American Athletic Conference champs ― arguably the most loaded team in the league ― only No. 3? Because we don’t discredit the value of a head coach to a program. The Tigers’ resident 4,000-yard passer (Brady White) and 1,200-yard receiver (Damonte Coxie) must replicate last year’s success minus Mike Norvell (now at FSU) and 2,000-yard all-purpose back Kenneth Gainwell, who recently opted out. Maybe the transition to new coach Ryan Silverfield will be seamless; we just don’t know.

2. vs. UCF (10-3), Nov. 27

UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton, celebrating with teammates after the Knights' 2017 Peach Bowl win against Auburn, appears on track to returning to action at some point in 2020. Milton suffered what initially was feared to be a career-ending knee injury in a victory at USF in November 2018.
UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton, celebrating with teammates after the Knights' 2017 Peach Bowl win against Auburn, appears on track to returning to action at some point in 2020. Milton suffered what initially was feared to be a career-ending knee injury in a victory at USF in November 2018.

Some pundits project the Knights mildly regressing this fall; we’re not among them. Though 10 players (at least two of them starters) have opted out, the offense remains too sleek, the quarterback too skilled, and the defense too seasoned. Imagine the electricity — and emotion — that will prevail over Raymond James Stadium if McKenzie Milton gets in this game, on the very field where his career nearly ended two years before. Would be a shame if at least some fans weren’t allowed in to witness it.

1. at Notre Dame (11-2), Sept. 19

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book threw for 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns last season.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book threw for 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns last season. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

When this dizzying summer of amended scheduling concluded, USF essentially had traded a top-15 non-conference opponent (Texas) for a top-10 one. Once the exhilaration of being inside Notre Dame Stadium wears off, the Bulls could be in for a sobering three-hour indication of how far they have to go. The Irish have a highly seasoned quarterback (Ian Book), veteran offensive line, and a ton of talented — if not proven — backs. The defense lost a lot, but the Irish are in the replenishing business.

Related: USF to receive no financial guarantee for its football trips to Notre Dame