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USF hopes against diminishing returns in Birmingham Bowl sequel

USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) gets around South Carolina defensive back D.J. Smith (24) for a touchdown during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Birmingham. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) gets around South Carolina defensive back D.J. Smith (24) for a touchdown during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Birmingham. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Published Dec. 21, 2017

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Upon learning they were headed to the Birmingham Bowl for a second straight postseason, USF's players and coaches conveyed the program's corporate sentiment admirably.

Senior safety Devin Abraham: "We definitely want to send the seniors out the right way and have these younger guys go out with some momentum going into next season."

Coach Charlie Strong: "You have a chance to get double-digit wins again and go 10-2, and you're playing against a Big 12 opponent (Texas Tech) from a Power Five."

Receiver Tyre McCants: "It's just go out and have fun."

All the sound bites sparkled, oozing diplomacy that nudged near political correctness. But at the end of a practice last week, senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez — among the more candid Bulls — deviated mildly from the script when asked if he was happy about returning to Birmingham.

"I guess," Sanchez said with a chuckle. "I guess so."

That response might — might — have revealed the emotional gauge of the Bulls, who were hoping to spend the postseason two hours east of Birmingham, at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. But their quest for New Year's Six cachet and an AAC title ended with an excruciating 49-42 loss at UCF four weeks ago.

So in spite of what they've been saying publicly the past few weeks, a legitimate question remains: Can the Bulls, who left every droplet of passion and perseverance on the Spectrum Stadium turf in Orlando, refill their tank for this game? Do they want to?

"Even though we lost (at UCF), it was a great team that we played, and it doesn't stop us," said receiver Darnell Salomon, whose 83-yard touchdown catch in the waning minutes helped tie the score. "We're still a family, we still work hard and we're still gonna go to the Birmingham Bowl and do what we've got to do."

A few signs suggest the Bulls will be sufficiently motivated Saturday morning when they hit Legion Field.

They can become only the second team in the program's 21 seasons to win 10 games, and a victory against a Power Five foe (whose athletic director, Kirby Hocutt, is chairman of the College Football Playoff selection committee) would validate their No. 23 national ranking.

Additionally, a number of individual records could be shattered. Quarterback Quinton Flowers enters the finale of his stellar career with a school-record 11,385 total yards, 46 shy of the American Athletic Conference record held by former Temple quarterback Philip Walker.

He also needs only 44 rushing yards to break the USF career record held by former teammate Marlon Mack (3,609). Moreover, the Bulls are led by a veteran core that likely will police itself against anyone mailing in an effort.

But a glaring paradox can't be ignored: While these Bulls have a lot to play for, they also have nothing to play for.

A stream of positive statements can't shroud the fact the Bulls are playing for a consolation prize instead of a grand one. They're disappointed not to be in Atlanta, relishing a conference title and playing for a possible top-15 final ranking before a raucous audience.

And speaking of audiences, they can't count on a hearty contingent to buoy their spirits Saturday. USF reported earlier this week that it had sold fewer than 1,100 of the 10,000 bowl tickets it had been allotted.

To prevail in this Birmingham sequel, against a potent Power Five offense, the Bulls will have to lean on pride — and each other.

The underclassmen must be convinced this game is a kick-start for 2018. The veterans must realize this is another nationally televised audition for the next level, or for some, a grand finale.

Just not quite as grand as they had in mind.

"I know for me what it means is this is my last game playing with a lot of these seniors," sophomore defensive end Greg Reaves said. "So for me, it's just sending them out the right way. So I'm gonna go out and give everything for them because … for some of the guys on our team, it might be their last time ever playing football."

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