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Jones: Get excited about USF, a team on the rise

USF's Tyre McCants (8) celebrates getting the touchdown with Mitch Wilcox (89) during the first half. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
USF's Tyre McCants (8) celebrates getting the touchdown with Mitch Wilcox (89) during the first half. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published Sep. 2, 2018
Updated Sep. 2, 2018

TAMPA — Welcome to another season of USF football. Hard to believe this is already No. 22 for the Bulls.

It seems like just the other day the entire program was made up of nothing more than a dream and a trailer parked out back on campus.

These days, things are a little bigger and a whole lot better.

These days, USF football is big time. As big time as, say, Florida or Florida State? Well, not quite. USF fans don't like hearing that, but the program is still a work in progress. But let's save the talk of major conferences and New Year's bowl invitations for another day.

Today is a day to look at all that USF is, not what it isn't.

And what is it? A solid program. Put it this way: USF is in a good place, about as good as it has been since that crazy time it crept to a No. 2 national ranking in 2007.

Saturday was a whole lot of fun for the green and gold, and a reason for optimism this fall.

Not to get too carried away with a season-opening 34-14 win against little Elon on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, but it wasn't all that long ago that USF would struggle against little programs on opening night. Heck, it wasn't all that long ago that USF was one of those little programs.

But, now, USF has a football program to be proud of and a team to get excited about. So, Tampa Bay, get excited. And maybe show up to watch the Bulls play.

Again, the Bulls beat Division I-AA Elon on Saturday. Not 'Bama. Not Auburn. I don't even know where Elon is located.

For USF, better teams await. Bigger tests will come, such as next week against Georgia Tech. But Saturday was a good night. And it answered some questions, including one really big one.

The biggest concern going into the game is less of a concern today. The Bulls might have found themselves a quarterback to replace Quinton Flowers, who only happens to be the best player in the history of the program.

Hello, Blake Barnett.

The redshirt junior already has the cool name of a starting quarterback. Looks as if he has the game, too. Five plays into his USF career he completed his third pass and first touchdown — a 40-yard beauty to Randall St. Felix. By the end of the third quarter, his night was done, and what a night it was: 24-of-34, 305 yards and a rushing TD to go along with his three touchdown tosses.

Time will tell if he can put up those kinds of numbers against the likes of Georgia Tech, Houston and UCF. But Saturday, he looked right at home. He looked really good.

He can't run like Flowers, but then again, who can?

"He's not Q,'' Bulls coach Charlie Strong said, "but he can make the throws for us.''

In fact, he looks like he can make the throws even better than Flowers. And considering he just showed up on campus just a few minutes ago, he's going to get even better.

"I thought I played well,'' Barnett said. "But there are a lot of things that I, myself, left out on the field.''

If Barnett can throw like this every week, the Bulls will be a heck of a lot of fun to watch. Then again, not many were watching Saturday. The game was on ESPN3, which isn't an actual television channel.

Even still, USF turned the logo around and set up the announcer's booth on the east side of the field, which it has never done before.

Why?

Because more fans sit on the west side and USF didn't want cameras showing the sparse crowd on the east side. Poor attendance and, more importantly, the perception that goes with it is still an issue for the Bulls.

The announced attendance was 31,217 (not even close) for the 65,890-seat Raymond James Stadium.

Maybe even more winning and an on-campus stadium will fix the problem. Or maybe a leap, someday, to a Power Five conference.

For now, USF's attendance issues remain a concern, especially if it hopes to keep Strong for the long haul. And the university should hope its second-year coach is in it for the long haul.

He's a good coach. Maybe even better than the guy he replaced, who is now the hot new guy at Florida State. Strong has taken a good thing that Willie Taggart started and has kept it going. The Bulls are 22-4 in their past 26 games.

That's good. Really good. If you're a USF fan, that's something exciting.

And, if you're a local college football fan, that's something worth watching.