Memphis is what USF football can be. Are the Bulls ready to get there?

Tigers coach Ryan Silverfield called USF a sleeping giant. He’s right.
USF football has improved this season with the help of Nay'Quan Wright. Can the Bulls become the AAC's next Memphis?
USF football has improved this season with the help of Nay'Quan Wright. Can the Bulls become the AAC's next Memphis? [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Oct. 31, 2023

TAMPA — You didn’t have to listen too hard Tuesday to hear the respect USF coach Alex Golesh has for Memphis.

“A team that for the last 10 years has been really at the top of our league,” Golesh said.

The Tigers have had success of varying levels across coaching staffs. Justin Fuente had a 10-win season. Mike Norvell earned a Cotton Bowl bid before taking over the Seminoles. His successor, Ryan Silverfield, has reloaded with offensive playmakers to give 6-2 Memphis a realistic shot at the AAC title game.

Memphis sounds like what USF should be. And, if you believe Silverfield, what they might be in the process of becoming.

“We always knew that South Florida’s one of those sleeping giants,” Silverfield told Memphis reporters this week. “If they ever got it going, they had the ability. You look out there on the field, you’re like, ‘Holy cow. They’ve got great players.’”

Great players are, obviously, the starting point for Memphis’ rise. The Tigers churned through them under Fuente and Norvell. Memphis joins Washington, USC, Boise State and James Madison as the only teams with two players who have at least a dozen plays of 20-plus yards (receiver Roc Taylor and running back Blake Watson).

USF quarterback Byrum Brown is entering the Quinton Flowers stratosphere for the Bulls.
USF quarterback Byrum Brown is entering the Quinton Flowers stratosphere for the Bulls. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

USF isn’t there yet, but you can see the Bulls catching up. Byrum Brown can join Quinton Flowers as the only two Bulls to ever record 4,000 yards of total offense in a season. Receiver Sean Atkins is on pace to break Rodney Adams’ single-season reception record, and Florida transfer Nay’Quan Wright’s 186 rushing yards against UConn were the most by any AAC player this season.

The progress is measurable in other ways. After failing to win a road game in three consecutive seasons, USF has two already (at Navy and UConn). Against the Huskies, the Bulls rallied from a two-score deficit in the final 12:45 to eke out a 24-21 victory.

“If you’re not seeing us lay a foundation for what’s going to be a high, high-end college football program, you’re crazy,” Golesh said.

Saturday marks his next, best chance to prove it. Golesh’s first season has already been a success, no matter what happens over the final month. That’s what happens when you win four games at a program that won only four times in the previous three seasons.

Making a bowl game is the obvious next goal — one that’s attainable, with games left against Temple and Charlotte. But USF has a chance to microwave the rebuilding process by beating, or at least challenging, Memphis at Liberty Stadium. The Bulls entered Tuesday’s practice relatively healthy and could use extra time during the off week to prepare for the Tigers.

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Golesh said recruiting was another focus during the open date. The early success gave the Bulls something tangible to sell on the recruiting trail. Hanging with Memphis would offer even more evidence as the early signing period approaches.

To be clear, USF doesn’t need to upset the Tigers to prove they’re headed in the right direction. But the circumstances and opponent make this a meaningful opportunity for Golesh and his program. It’s a chance for the Bulls to compete against one of the conference’s most consistently successful teams — and to see how much progress they’ve made toward joining them.

USF asks for support

The Bulls are asking for continued support from fans.
The Bulls are asking for continued support from fans. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

After women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez spoke at a news conference to promote his team’s upcoming season, he made an unsolicited plea for fan support for a football program that is somewhere it hasn’t been “in a long time.”

“Let’s not continue to have a seesaw on social media …” Fernandez said. “We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to do better as a community and as supporters, because at the end of the day they’re student-athletes. They’re looking at that.”

Said Golesh: “You want to get better? Show up to the stadium. Create an incredible game atmosphere. Support the (name, image and likeness) collective. I think that combination to recruits is really impressive.”

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