TAMPA — For the big finale, a home bowl loss.
And the reality: Maybe this is what USF is.
Hey, no one goes into Raymond James Stadium and beats Marshall in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. USF found that out the hard way, the historic way, the grisly way, in Thursday night's embarrassing 38-20 loss. They were nothing but mulch.
Thus ended a season that began with promise.
It began 7-0.
There is no way to paint six consecutive losses and a 7-6 as a success, as anything but a serious step back.
"Very disappointing," Strong said in a Raymond James hallway after the game. "We don't like it. I'm telling you right now, we're going to clean up this whole program. A lot of guys will be leaving. We need a good washing."
Strong and his Bulls became the first major college football program to win its first seven games, then lose six in a row. Maybe the rain scared USF fans off. Or maybe the football team did.
We know where Strong goes. He isn't leaving. He remains at USF. Last year's 10-2 season is but a memory. It's hard to change jobs with a six-game losing streak.
The Bulls didn't look like they wanted to be there the first half of this game — and they were 20 minutes from their campus. The rain didn't help. It kept the crowd down, way down. Five straight losses didn't help. Once again, fans fell away as USF did.
I don't believe in carryover from one season to the next. Last season, 10-2, meant nothing when the Bulls free fall this season began at Houston and just kept going, including an abomination here against Tulane. USF never quite recovered from that.
But what does 7-6 mean for next year?
Who is to say a turnaround is in sight? It sure didn't feel like it Thursday. It feels like it will be more of the same for the foreseeable future. Look, USF fans don't need a lot of reasons to stay away. The Bulls just gave them some.
Quarterback Blake Barnett, eternal transfer, began the 2018 as the answer, but finished it as a question mark, as well as dinged with injuries. The defense took a major step back in 2018. The Bulls couldn't stop anyone when it truly mattered, and Thursday was no different, as Marshall piled up 503 yards.
That is how you wind up looking at UCF again. And UCF is disappearing in the distance.
It's a call to order for Strong and his players and staff. Maybe there is hope. Strong had a good signing day, nabbing three-star talent, including three edge rushers, three linebackers and three cornerbacks. The Bulls will return most of their offensive line and defensive front and the talented running tandem, Jordan Cronkrite and Johnny Ford. He also signed a dual-threat quarterback, Jahquez Evans out of Atlanta.
But the schedule looks tougher in 2018, beginning with a season-opener here against Wisconsin, a date with BYU and a return game at Georgia Tech.
Remember, it was the comeback win over Tech early this season, followed by a comeback at Illinois (which should have killed Lovie Smith's contract extension then and there) that fed big dreams and helped propel USF into the national rankings.
But it was all an illusion. I bet Strong knew it. USF was lucky to have won some of those seven games, the last of them a 38-30 home win over a UConn team that finished 1-11.
Reality eventually ground Strong and his Bulls into dust. They were pretty much no match for Houston, or Tulane, or at Cincinnati, or at Temple (where they blew a 17-0 halftime lead). UCF crushed the Bulls in Tampa even without injured QB McKenzie Milton.
Who isn't tired of USF having a few good stretches, then bad stretches? But that's USF, no more, no less. And that's a bad sign. It's remarkable that this program still hasn't won a conference title in its history. It's also remarkable that it still doesn't have a standalone training facility.
"Until we get some things done, we're going to be average," Strong said.
He thought of undefeated UCF, which is headed for another big bowl.
"They've got an identity because of what they've put into the program," Strong said.
Strong has been here two seasons, but this was his first without the best player in school history, Quinton Flowers. And there are USF defensive players from last season who this season are on NFL rosters. These were Willie Taggart guys. We're still waiting on Charlie Strong guys after a season that saw a profound lack of leadership, senior or otherwise.
"It's over with now," Strong said. "We go on to the next one."
Start the wash cycle.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-731-8029