Will USF football be another UCF or UConn?

As their I-4 rival prepares to go to the Big 12, the Bulls are at an existential crossroads.
USF's groundbreaking ceremony for its indoor practice facility could be a turning point for the Bulls' future.
USF's groundbreaking ceremony for its indoor practice facility could be a turning point for the Bulls' future. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 10, 2021

TAMPA — Assuming the Big 12 makes its expected move of adding UCF, Houston, Cincinnati and BYU, Friday will be one of the most distressing days in USF football history.

It will mean USF has been lapped by the UCF program it reportedly blocked from joining the Big East a decade ago. It will mean the I-4 gap has grown so large that the Bulls can’t even ride their once-little-brother’s coattails to greener pastures.

It will mean the Knights, officially, are out of USF’s league.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. The Bulls can change it.

Related: USF ‘going to’ build on-campus football stadium, board of trustees chair says

“This is not the last round of realignment,” athletic director Michael Kelly said. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen in a month, in a year, two years. But we have to control what we can control and improve what we can do.”

USF can build itself the way UCF did and charge on into a Power Five conference. Or it can risk becoming like UConn and fading into obscurity. The choice is up to every player, coach, administrator, graduate and fan.

The Bulls should be attractive to power leagues. They sit in a growing top-20 metro area teeming with recruits in one of the biggest football states. Those factors helped make USF a finalist when the Big 12 explored expansion in 2016, got them considered this time and will make them appealing next time, too.

Related: How does USF compare to future Big 12 teams UCF, BYU, Cincinnati and Houston?

USF’s problem is USF. The Bulls aren’t going into the Power Five because they don’t belong there yet.

Three of the Big 12′s four impending additions have played in at least one major bowl game since 2015. The other, BYU, went 11-1 last year.

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 ]

USF has lost 23 of its last 36 games. That’s a fatal flaw in a realignment round driven by football success.

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

USF’s facilities are not Power Five worthy. The indoor practice facility the Bulls broke ground on Wednesday is long-overdue progress — UCF has had one for so long that it just replaced its turf — but not enough.

The on-campus stadium USF says it’s now prioritizing? UCF has had one since 2007. Houston opened a $125 million stadium in 2014, and Cincinnati spent $86 million renovating Nippert Stadium a year later.

It took four years for USF’s $22 million indoor facility to go from announcement to construction. How long will it take for a project that could cost 10 times as much?

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Talk is cheap. Stadiums are not.

If USF wants to build an on-campus stadium, it will not be cheap.
If USF wants to build an on-campus stadium, it will not be cheap. [ Courtesy of USF ]

“We’re not focused on the near term; we’re focused on the long term,” said Will Weatherford, the chair of USF’s board of trustees. “We’re building a top-25 academic institution here at USF. We’re building high-quality athletics programs. That’s going to lend itself to all kinds of opportunities.”

It will — if the Bulls make it happen.

Kelly called Wednesday “a great step for whatever our future is, both currently to win the American and anything else that might come in the future.” But it was only one step.

University leaders need to commit to sports beyond one fancy presentation. The athletic department needs to do whatever it takes to turn football around. Boosters need to be willing to fund a high-level program. Fans need to show they care through better TV ratings, social media engagement and, yes, attendance. The football team needs to win big. Soon.

USF lost its opener to North Carolina State 45-0.
USF lost its opener to North Carolina State 45-0. [ BEN MCKEOWN | AP ]

“It all has to happen,” coach Jeff Scott said. “It’s not one or the other, right?”

Right. It’s everything.

Scott often talks about how he watched Clemson become a powerhouse because of how everyone there aligned. If USF unites that way, it’s easy to see the Bulls using their built-in advantages to follow UCF into a better league.

Maybe even the Big 12. Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told his school’s radio network that its expansion is an eight- to 10-year process. That’s enough time for the Bulls to fix the problems that held them back this round. And it must happen, because the alternative is dark.

Like USF, UConn was one of the candidates the Big 12 seriously considered five years ago. That made sense; the Huskies sit in a heavily populated region and weren’t far removed from a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

When the Big 12 didn’t expand, UConn soon found itself in a conference (the AAC) that didn’t fit, playing teams its fans didn’t care about. The football program — stuck in a crowded local sports scene — became a laughingstock.

Is that an extreme scenario for USF? Probably. But the Bulls have enough trouble generating excitement now. Good luck doing it in a weaker AAC that loses its top three teams and adds an Alabama Birmingham or Georgia State. If later rounds of realignment grow the gap between the bluebloods and everyone else, USF could further slip into irrelevance.

Which puts the Bulls at an existential crossroads.

USF can use Friday’s embarrassment as a wakeup call. The Bulls can grab the golden shovels from Wednesday’s ceremony to start digging their way out from rock bottom. They can transform their facilities, fire up the community and figure out how to win again. They can start becoming the Power Five program they want to be.

Or they can continue what they’re doing — what they’ve been doing — and risk getting left behind again.

For good.

Related: Five stories that will shape the next 25 years of USF football

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