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Jones: Thriller doesn't diminish what might have been for USF

USF safety Devin Abraham (20), left, is comforted by backup quarterback Chris Oladokun at the conclusion of Friday's (11/24/17) in-state rival NCAA football game between UCF Knights and the USF Bulls at Spectrum Stadium at the University of Central Florida (UCF). (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
USF safety Devin Abraham (20), left, is comforted by backup quarterback Chris Oladokun at the conclusion of Friday's (11/24/17) in-state rival NCAA football game between UCF Knights and the USF Bulls at Spectrum Stadium at the University of Central Florida (UCF). (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
Published Nov. 24, 2017

ORLANDO — It has been a heck of a season. It really has.

And Friday was a heck of a game. It really was. It was as good as any game in the nation this season.

USF has lots to be proud of. A 9-2 regular season. A knock-down, drag-out, dogfight against undefeated UCF on Friday in Orlando in a nationally-televised, day-after-Thanksgiving, better-than-the-hype classic that people will be talking about forever.

The whole country tuned in and got to see just how fun and exciting this USF program is. USF fans could not have been prouder seeing their team sweat and bleed and fight and claw. The Bulls eft everything they had on the field in a 49-42 loss.

Quarterback Quinton Flowers captivated the college football world. He threw for 503 yards. He ran for 102. He had a hand in five scores. He won't win the Heisman, but don't tell me he's not one of the best pound-for-pound players in the country. Don't tell me there is a player who means more to his team than Flowers does to USF.

Even in losing, Friday was a special day for USF. The Bulls played well enough to win. They deserved to win as much as UCF did. Had it not been for a 94-yard kickoff return with less than two minutes left, they just might have.

Plus, let's not lose sight of the fact that the Bulls' season is not over. They will go to a bowl game. They could finish with double-digit wins.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

So how come it feels so lousy?

Because it is.

In the end, the 2017 season, for all the good things that happened and for as scintillating as Friday was, will go down as a disappointment.

That sounds harsh, I know. Most teams in the country would count 9-2 and a bowl game as a successful season. Heck, USF would think that most years. But not this year.

This was supposed to be the year for USF. The Bulls weren't supposed to lose one game, let alone two. They are supposed to be playing next weekend's AAC championship at home, not watching it at home. They were supposed to go to a New Year's Day bowl.

This was supposed to be the best season in program history.

"We didn't win a conference championship," coach Charlie Strong said. "But we did go 9-2."

When asked if he was happy with that, he said in a word: "Yes."

But how could he be? This team was loaded. Expectations of an undefeated season were high, but also realistic. He didn't come here to go 9-2 this year. He didn't come here to finish second in his division.

Maybe USF deserved better. You watched the Bulls play their guts out Friday and couldn't help but feel sick for them. You also couldn't help but wonder what might have been if only a couple of plays this season had turned out differently. Maybe they would be playing next week for the AAC title. Maybe they, and not rival UCF, would be the little darlings of college football.

Then again, you look back on the season and think USF got exactly what it deserved. Too many times, the Bulls goofed around far too long in games, waiting for Flowers to bail them out in the second half. They played down to their opponents and are lucky they didn't lose another game or two more.

"I would say it was a great season (even though) it didn't go how a lot of people wanted it to go," Flowers said before being asked if he was disappointed to not be undefeated and playing for a conference title.

"Yes, I am, because the championship is on my birthday. Nothing I can do about it. I gave it my all. This team gave it all."

They did give their all. It just wasn't enough. So where does USF go from here?

Flowers, maybe the best player in the program's history, has only the bowl game left. Strong might not be around even that long. Already, there's a buzz that he could leave for a better job in a bigger conference. Maybe Tennessee. Maybe Arkansas. Maybe even Florida.

You would hate to think that Friday is as good as it gets for USF.

Especially because it wasn't anywhere near as good as it was supposed to be.