USF looks to build off of coach Willie Taggert’s success and make the leap forward under Charlie Strong. But how far can they go?
August marks the start of college football, and it’s been a long time coming. Here at SQ we’re previewing all the top teams in the country based on our own Top-25. Yesterday we took an in-depth look at Kansas State. Today I preview the South Florida Bulls, coming in at No. 19.
Team Name: South Florida Bulls
2016 Record and Rank: 11-2 (19th)
Coach: Charlie Strong (first year, 16-21 with Texas)
Key Arrivals: WR Kevaughn Dingle, DL Josh Allen, CB Naytron Culpepper, OL Jean Marcellus, CB Nick Roberts
Key Departures: RB Marlon Mack, WR Rodney Adams, LB Nigel Harris, S Nate Godwin, OG Dominigue Threatt, OT Kofi Amichia
Previewing USF’s Offense
Over his five years at USF, coach Willie Taggart built the foundation for a potent offense attack that will continue to be one of the best in the country despite him bolting to Oregon. In 2016, the Bulls were lethal, accounting for 6,650 total yards (13th nationally), 3,709 rushing yards (5th), and scoring 43.8 points per game (4th).
New coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert inherited some top-level talent from last season, none better than quarterback Quinton Flowers. In his first full year starting for the Bulls, Flowers threw for 2,812 yards, 21 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions. To go along with his passing ability, Flowers was one of the nation’s best runners, finishing first on the team with 1,530 yards (also 12th nationally) and 18 touchdowns (tied seventh nationally). Gilbert’s offense is in great hands with Flowers at the helm.
Marlon Mack was an electric running back during his time in Tampa. He rushed for over 1,000 yards each of his three seasons and shocked a lot of people when he announced he would enter the 2017 NFL Draft. His production will be hard to replace, but Strong is confident in his new bellcow, senior D’Ernest Johnson. Last season, Johnson finished third on the team with 543 yards and eight touchdowns. Now as the primary back, Johnson’s numbers should skyrocket and the Bulls offense should keep on rolling.
Previewing USF’s Defense
As good as the Bulls’ offense was in 2016, the defense was equally as bad. USF ranked in the bottom half in almost every category including yards (117th) and points per game (86th). New coordinator Brian Jean-Mary has his work cut out for him in 2017, but there are pieces at every level that have potential to help this unit improve as a whole.
It’s no secret that senior Deadrin Senat is the anchor along the defensive line. Senat finished 2016 with 49 total tackles with seven for loss, but will need help around him for the line to succeed. Senior Bruce Hector (who finished tied for the team lead with six sacks) will find himself occupying the second tackle spot alongside Senat. Outside of Senat and Hector, the defensive line doesn’t have tons of talent to rely on. Mike Love is the only other lineman that showed any kind of production, but probably not enough for Strong and Jean-Mary to be satisfied.
Linebacker Nigel Harris was easily the biggest loss on the defensive side. Harris finished second on the team with 78 total tackles, and led the team with 9.5 tackles for loss while adding two sacks and two interceptions to his stat line. Team captain Auggie Sanchez returns to the middle linebacker spot, but replacing Harris on the outside is key. Sophomore Nico Sawtelle and redshirt freshman Andre Polk will likely compete for the second linebacker spot in USF’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
USF Football (@USFFootball) July 31, 2017
If a coach is going to put five defensive backs on the field at the same time, then he better have a talented group to pull it off, and Strong has just that group for 2017. The best of the bunch is cornerback Deatrick Nichols who finished 2016 with a team-leading four interceptions. Nichols finds himself on a number of preseason watch lists including the Thorpe Award (best cornerback) and Bednarik Award (best defensive player). Lining opposite of Nichols is Ronnie Hoggins, who pulled in two interceptions himself last season.
Three Key Games
1. Sept. 21 vs Temple- The Bulls have a relatively easy beginning to their 2017 season and should start off 4-0 going in to their Week 5 matchup against Temple in an early season AAC showdown. The Owls slipped past USF in the AAC East thanks to a 46-30 win that determined half of the AAC title game. The Bulls will look to avenge that loss when they play host this season and attempt to take early control of the AAC East.
2. Nov. 4 vs Houston- Many were hoping for a USF-Houston AAC Championship game, but both teams came up short last season. The Cougars fell apart halfway through the year, but dynamic playmaker Greg Ward Jr. returns for his senior year to finish 2017 off right. Flowers is just as dynamic, if not more so than Ward Jr., and both quarterbacks should be in for a big day. Whichever defense comes to play will be a huge factor in a game that could be a preview of the AAC Championship Game.
3. Nov. 24 at UCF- UCF is just a year removed from a winless season and took huge strides under new coach Scott Frost. The Knights will look to take the next step against in-state rival USF. The Bulls luckily have UCF’s number, leading the all-time series 6-2 including a 48-31 win last season. There is just too much talent for UCF to compete with, but don’t underestimate the power of a rivalry. USF will have to avoid a letdown in order to cap off the season in style.
Simply put, USF should win the AAC. Strong has a roster packed with talent that he never had at Texas, and should push them over the top. This Bulls offense is scary good and looking to get even better under Gilbert. Flowers isn’t a dark horse Heisman candidate, he is a legitimate contender and the rest of the offense just has to fall into place and let Flowers lead the way. The defense will make fans nervous, especially at the beginning of the season but should improve, especially with the experience they have on that side of the ball. Overall, there isn’t a game USF shouldn’t be favored in but seeing any team go undefeated is highly unlikely. I see the Bulls going 11-1 and finding themselves right in the thick of the CFP discussion.
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