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Is USF football a disappointment or a victim of expectations?

John Romano | Yes, growing pains are still to be expected for a college football program, even 25 years later.
This was sort of the theme of the day for the USF Bulls. Running back Kelley Joiner just missed holding on to a flea flicker pass that could have gone for a touchdown during the first half of Saturday's 42-30 loss to the Florida Gators.
This was sort of the theme of the day for the USF Bulls. Running back Kelley Joiner just missed holding on to a flea flicker pass that could have gone for a touchdown during the first half of Saturday's 42-30 loss to the Florida Gators. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Sep. 11
Updated Sep. 11

TAMPA — It seemed like a good idea at the time. Back in the spring of 2018, when relevance was still within reach, scheduling a few games against the University of Florida was exactly the kind of thing a rising football program such as USF needed.

Three years later, on a sultry afternoon in a stadium that was not quite filled, it felt more like USF’s ambition had exceeded its ability.

Again.

The final score was Florida 42, USF 20 but that’s just the numbers they’ll put in the record books. The truth is the result had already been decided just past the halfway point in the second quarter when the Gators took a 35-3 lead.

And, at that point, it didn’t seem like it was such a good idea to use this game as a measuring stick in the state. Because if that’s the barometer, the Bulls are still stuck in third and long.

“On offense we couldn’t do what we needed to do to sustain drives and just kept putting our defense in some difficult situations,” USF coach Jeff Scott said. “That’s ultimately where this game was lost in the first half. We just gave up way too many points too quickly and couldn’t move the ball on offense.”

To be fair, hardly anyone was expecting the Bulls to take down the Gators on Saturday afternoon. And they probably weren’t expecting it when the contracts were signed in 2018 just months after USF had just finished its second straight double-digit win season and bowl appearance.

USF fans didn't have a lot to cheer about in Saturday's loss to the ranked Gators.
USF fans didn't have a lot to cheer about in Saturday's loss to the ranked Gators. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

But it’s the gap in talent that is worrisome today. USF has now lost 10 games in a row, and the defense has allowed an average of 40 points a game in that span. The Bulls have lost seven of those games by 20 points or more.

And as college football begins its latest carnival ride of conference-hopping, USF doesn’t seem tall enough to gain admission. Which is hugely disappointing for a program that once seemed on the verge of a breakthrough based on its immediate success and major metro location.

In the end, this feels like a recurring theme around USF. Grand hopes followed by sobering reality.

Except the problem is not a lack of performance, it’s the unrealistic abundance of expectation.

Look around at the other programs that began football around the same time that USF did in 1997. UAB has one 11-win season and no happy memories of the Associated Press poll. Florida Atlantic and FIU have had a few big-name coaches and a handful of minor bowl appearances. Coastal Carolina has gotten off to a banging start, but the Sun Belt Conference is not quite the summit.

From that standpoint, USF has accomplished far more than a booster could expect.

There have been top-25 rankings in seven different seasons. There have been landmark victories against Florida State, Miami, Auburn, West Virginia, Clemson and Notre Dame. There have been moments when the Bulls seemed worthy of hanging with college football’s big boys.

But sneaking into the party and getting invited are two different things.

USF quarterback Cade Fortin throws during a challenging first half. He was replaced after halftime by Timmy McClain.
USF quarterback Cade Fortin throws during a challenging first half. He was replaced after halftime by Timmy McClain. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Success in college football is not measured in upsets or television ratings. It’s a sport of tradition, perception and alumni, which is why few programs have ever been able to jump ahead of the line.

In that sense, USF’s problem is that the program exceeded any reasonable expectations in the early years. The Jim Leavitt-led Bulls were a marvel of chutzpah and tenacity. They barreled into the top 10 in the rankings in 2007 faster than any burgeoning program in NCAA history.

The excitement was exceeded only by the intrigue: Was it really possible for an upstart program to challenge for conference titles and New Year’s Day bowl games with so little past to draw on?

All these years later, we’ve discovered the answer.

In some ways, the thing that has always made USF so attractive to conference presidents and undervalued recruits is also what holds it back. It’s a school with big enrollment numbers in a major TV market, but it also gets lost behind the Bucs, Lightning and Rays in the community. The Bulls have never been a big attendance draw in Tampa Bay, and even putting the Gators in the building was not enough to fill every seat at Raymond James Stadium, with Saturday’s game drawing a very skeptical-sounding 66,646.

Scott even felt the need to thank the fans who stuck around for the second half of a game that was already decided.

So was there any positive to be drawn from this game for USF?

Well, the second half looked a heck of a lot better than the first. And the Bulls responded to adversity better than they did a week ago while losing 45-0 at N.C. State. Freshman quarterback Timmy McClain might be worth building around and sophomore receiver Xavier Weaver undoubtedly has some skill.

In the end, these Bulls just need a little more patience. It’s what USF has always needed.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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