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Berth in conference title game at stake Friday for USF Bulls

LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times  South Florida Bulls head coach Charlie Strong joins his players in the school fight song following a win in the home opener for the South Florida Bulls against the Stony Brook Seawolves at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times South Florida Bulls head coach Charlie Strong joins his players in the school fight song following a win in the home opener for the South Florida Bulls against the Stony Brook Seawolves at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.
Published Nov. 24, 2017

In a vote of coaches and teammates, USF center Cameron Ruff almost surely would be chosen most likely to win a political office, in a landslide.

A graduate student, Ruff is co-president of USF's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and was selected as the American Athletic Conference representative to attend an NCAA student-athlete leadership forum two summers ago. Playfully, coach Charlie Strong even has referred to Ruff as "my politician."

Stands to reason, then, that when faced with a fairly challenging question three days before the Bulls' winner-take-all showdown at UCF, Ruff would handle it deftly.

If you lose, will it be hard convincing yourselves that this still has been a good season?

"Going 9-2 is definitely a great season on paper," said Ruff, whose 22nd-ranked team plays No. 13 UCF for the American Athletic Conference's East Division title today in Orlando.

"And when you look back, you have that feel-good feeling, but it will be bittersweet because we definitely know where we can be."

It was diplomacy at its finest. But truth be told, some of Ruff's peers — and an overwhelming majority of USF's fan base — likely would opt for a stronger word for that scenario than "bittersweet."

More like "bummer." Or perhaps even "bust."

"We don't think about failure or anything like that," senior running back Darius Tice said. "We think about going out there and putting our best foot forward and being successful and doing what we do, USF football."

Such is the state of Bulls football in 2017. Though this is the year of the rooster in the Chinese zodiac, it also was forecast as the year USF fans finally would crow.

Even with the loss of coach Willie Taggart to Oregon, and three-time 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack and top receiver Rodney Adams to the NFL, the Bulls still retained plenty of horsepower (including 13 rising senior starters) from the 11-2 season of 2016.

Athletic director Mark Harlan then hit a widely hailed home run by hiring Strong to replace Taggart.

"I know when (Strong) stepped in, the first day he was like, 'You guys did great this season, went 11-2, but … '?" reigning conference offensive player of the year Quinton Flowers said during a summer interview.

"Once he said 'but,' he was like, 'It's not enough.'?"

Read more: USF-UCF rivalry needs more than directional disrespect

Even pundits sensed the Bulls hadn't peaked. At No. 19, they were the only Group of Five team to appear in the Associated Press preseason top 25. Every significant preseason magazine forecast them to win the AAC title and play in the Peach Bowl.

USF was a unanimous pick to win the East in the league's preseason media poll, and it was picked to win the conference — something it has never done — on 26 of the 30 ballots.

And the team mantra — unspoken yet palpable — has been that nothing short of a title will suffice, despite Strong's recent efforts to hedge that preseason message to his team.

"You won nine games and you're sitting here at 9-1," he told reporters Tuesday.

"You're going to lose to an undefeated team if you (lose today), so it's not like you're sitting there where you lost to a team that's won five games. So it's not a failure."

Try telling that to the constituents, many of whom have been underwhelmed by how this team got to 9-1.

Though Strong has transformed the defense (which allowed an average 482 yards a game in 2016) into a stout unit ranked 21st in Division I-A (323.5 yards per game), the veer-and-shoot offense of coordinator Sterlin Gilbert often has been maligned.

Though balanced (276.9 rushing, 217.3 passing yards per game), the system has been criticized for seeming to confine Flowers as a runner and limit his short-throw options. Though 22nd nationally in total offense (296.7 yards per game), Flowers' average yards per play, 6.79, is down significantly from last season's 8.2.

So is his pass efficiency rating, from 153.6 to 133.8.

Even when things are clicking offensively, there are hiccups elsewhere. The Bulls have had seven kicks blocked this season.

Fennelly: USF can take everything that rival UCF has

"We have not put together a complete game yet," Strong said.

They have one final chance today. Fail to do so and USF is destined for a second-tier bowl in Florida or perhaps a return trip to the Birmingham Bowl.

"Obviously you want (the fans) to be able to walk with their heads held high coming out of this game," defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. "But to say it's a total loss if the outcome doesn't come out the way you want to, that would be a disservice to these kids that busted their butts for you."

So perhaps a loss wouldn't be a total loss. But there's no disputing Birmingham wouldn't seem nearly as sweet of a consolation prize this year.

Maybe bittersweet, at best.

Read more: 4 final thoughts on Bulls-Knights

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

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