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USF morning after: assessing the fallout from a 5-game skid

Look for the reeling Bulls to make significant changes, but probably not drastic ones
USF fans unfurl a sign during the second half of Friday's game against UCF at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls lost, 38-10. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
USF fans unfurl a sign during the second half of Friday's game against UCF at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls lost, 38-10. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Nov. 24, 2018
Updated Nov. 24, 2018

We realize your plight, Bulls fans. You tried to sleep off your team's 38-10 loss in the "War on I-4," but the recurring nightmare of halfback dives and head-scratching decisions deprived you of rest.

Now, you're grumpier than ever, and want someone's head on a platter. We're not gonna serve up that up here.

Instead, we'll try to offer some perspective, and a reasonable projection of what might transpire with this program in the wake of a five-game losing streak.

We'll start at the top, since steam rises and, well, you're presumably steamed.

Charlie Strong didn't exactly endear himself to his team when he insisted in his postgame press conference that the Bulls must recruit bigger, faster players. And he further antagonized his fan base by saying the Bulls "have a ways to go" before it catches UCF.

But we still believe the only way Strong departs at this point is if he wants to, or if he flat-out refuses to budge philosophically in looming sit-downs with vice-president of athletics Michael Kelly.

It's simply bad optics to dismiss a coach only a year after a 10-win season, and could scare off many candidates for the vacancy. And while many point to the spike in Strong's salary (to $2.5 million) next year, USF wouldn't appear to save a ton of money by canning him.

Granted, the school would owe Strong a pittance (20 weeks of his $500,000 base salary, which comes to roughly $192,000) for firing him without cause. But any replacement worth his salt isn't gonna work for free. Josh Heupel reportedly earns $1.7 million annually at UCF. Cincinnati's Luke Fickell makes $2 million.

But that isn't to suggest no staff changes will occur. The odds of Strong's entire pool of assistants remaining intact for a third consecutive year seem very slim. Moreover, his staff salary pool rises noticeably — from $2.25 million to $3.4 million — on Jan. 1.

Defensively, rational Bulls fans should've anticipated a decline in 2018. USF lost six starters from 2017, four of whom are employed by NFL teams. Their replacements lacked the necessary experience and, in some cases, girth. Another offseason of film study and physical development could resolve a lot of problems.

"Right now on defense we play a lot of guys, but we've got to get bigger, we've got to get stronger," Strong said following Friday's loss. "When you look at it, you have (Khalid) McGee, he's one of your starting linebackers and he's a safety."

The offensive issues seem to go deeper, prompting Strong to affirm his team "has to" re-evaluate what it's doing.

The run-first tendencies of Sterlin Gilbert's veer-and-shoot system grew predictable long ago. The Bulls have averaged only 20.2 points per game during their losing skid, and averaged 4.1 yards per play against UCF.

Meantime, fan disgruntlement has grown toxic, as evidenced by the "Fire Gilbert" signs hoisted Friday at Raymond James Stadium. Even the players' body language has been noticeably negative at times.

"There are too many fingers being pointed, too many things being said," TB Johnny Ford said.

As for the shorter term, the Bulls appear a lock to remain in Florida during bowl season. The American Athletic Conference and its TV partners generally prefer bowl matchups that make geographic sense and pit their best teams against Power Five opposition.

Keeping those factors in mind, the Gasparilla Bowl remains in play for USF, though the Boca Raton Bowl or Cure Bowl in Orlando seem likelier destinations. Representatives from the Cure attended Friday's game.

Speaking of cures, expect an antidote of some sort. Our projection is, the program will make changes deemed profound but not drastic. Clearly, the status quo won't suffice, especially for a program desperately trying to raise money for a $40 million football complex.

And like his sleep-deprived fan base, Kelly won't rest until he's assured his program's back on course.