As conference realignment begins, USF picked a bad time to be bad at football

We don’t know how this round of realignment will work. But we do know that a losing football program won’t help.
USF's recent struggles include a 27-point home loss to SMU in 2019.
USF's recent struggles include a 27-point home loss to SMU in 2019. [ Times (2019) ]
Published July 29, 2021

When Tom Herman was the coach at Houston, he wanted the facilities’ floors professionally cleaned at least twice a month.

Why? Because you never knew when a five-star recruit or Power Five commissioner would stop by.

“At that point,” Herman told SBNation in 2015, “it’s too late to clean the carpets.”

And that’s the situation USF finds itself in today. The latest round of conference realignment has begun, and it’s too late for the Bulls to clean their carpets. Or, more importantly, their languishing football program.

USF picked a bad time to be bad at the only sport that matters.

USF has seen diminishing returns on the field over the past three seasons.
USF has seen diminishing returns on the field over the past three seasons. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2019) ]

The college sports landscape is, to borrow the Big 12′s buzzwords, “experiencing rapid change.” The expected move of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 to the SEC is the first major domino to fall. It probably won’t be the last.

Related: What might Texas, Oklahoma to SEC mean for Florida’s schools?

Will the Big 12 expand from coast to coast? Implode entirely? Will we see scheduling alliances? Mergers? A 64-team breakaway into one massive league?

We don’t know how this wave of realignment will end, but we do know the factors that will drive it. Or factor, really.

Football. And USF hasn’t been good enough to demand the attention of the Big 12 or other power leagues.

UCF has. The Knights have been to three New Year’s Six bowl games in the past decade.

UCF's recent success includes a Peach Bowl triumph over Auburn.
UCF's recent success includes a Peach Bowl triumph over Auburn. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]

Cincinnati has. The Bearcats were in the College Football Playoff picture at the end of last season and boast three consecutive top-25 finishes.

Boise State has. The Broncos still have name recognition from their 2006-11 dominance and reeled off four straight seasons with double-digit wins before the pandemic.

Compare those resumes to USF, which has never won its conference and never appeared in a major bowl game.

The Bulls have had flashes of success, of course. They still get mileage out of their brief rise to No. 2 in 2007. They had back-to-back seasons with top-25 finishes in 2016-17. But USF couldn’t sustain the success either time. Since losing one of the most high-profile games in program history — a 49-42 classic at No. 13 UCF in 2017 —the Bulls are 13-22. Nationally, they became irrelevant.

USF has declined since losing a 49-42 heartbreaker to UCF in 2017.
USF has declined since losing a 49-42 heartbreaker to UCF in 2017. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2017) ]
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Their carpets got dirty. And the football filth is distracting from all the good things USF has to offer a major conference.

USF is a preeminent research institution, for the school presidents and chancellors who care about such things. It’s located in a football recruiting hotspot and a large, growing metro area for prospective students. It’s expected to start construction soon on an indoor practice facility that will help it catch up in the arms race. It’s coming off one of its best all-around athletics years ever with 10 conference titles (six team, four individual).

Related: USF athletic director pleads for more fan support after successful spring

But all of that takes a backseat to a struggling football team. All of that is overshadowed by dirty carpets.

As conferences figure out this changing landscape, the bottom-line centers on TV money, which centers on football. Leagues will only expand if the new teams will be worth more money to TV partners, and if that additional money increases the revenue for each school. Sitting in a large TV market like the Tampa Bay region only matters so much if a team’s games aren’t worth watching. And for the average college football fan, a team coming off a 1-8 season and pegged to finish near the bottom of a Group of Five conference isn’t worth watching.

Is it possible that USF still ends up a winner in realignment? Sure. If the AAC poaches what’s left of the Big 12 (instead of the other way around), the Bulls’ struggles won’t matter. Or maybe well-respected athletic director Michael Kelly can get a league to buy into the Bulls’ long-term (but unrealized) potential.

It’s also possible this round of realignment stops with Texas and Oklahoma, so an AAC title or two wouldn’t have helped USF, anyway. The Big 12 heard pitches from USF and others five years ago before deciding not to expand. Maybe UCF, Cincinnati and Boise State all get shut out this time, too.

But as the college sports landscape begins to shift, bigger schools and leagues considering expansion will look at the Bulls and see an unmistakable stain.

USF’s carpets are dirty. And it’s too late to clean them.

Related: What college football loses when Oklahoma, Texas join the SEC

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