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On TCU’s heels

As the newcomer to Conference USA, USF shouldn’t be shocked that the Sports Information Directors of the league picked the Bulls to place third. However, the question is, how accurate will that prediction be?

The Bulls are coming off a 9-2 season in which they were ranked 14th by The New York Times poll and went 4-0 against C-USA teams.

Returning champion TCU was earmarked for first place again. Hard to argue with a team that finished first in the nation in total defense and No. 22 in the polls after beating Colorado State in the AXA Liberty Bowl.

Yet, a clear case can be made that the Bulls are supremely capable of overtaking the Horned Frogs. The entire offensive line returns intact. Wide receivers Chris Iskra and Huey Whittaker are primed for a return to their 2001 form when they were USF’s top tandem. Whittaker set school records for yards and receptions (both broken by the departed Hugh Smith in 2002), while Iskra was third on the team with 37 catches and fourth with 461 yards. Whittaker’s 26 catches in 2002 were half his total from the year before, and Iskra’s numbers in both categories slipped by almost 25 percent.

Even the defensive line, the area hit hardest in the off-season, has managed to look good despite losing all four starters. End is set with Terrence Royal, a part-time starter as a true freshman, at one spot and junior Tim Jones manning the other. Jones began last season as a tight end, but the athleticism of the 6-foot-3, 250 pounder is better suited to the defensive side of the ball. Making the switch after the second game of the season, Jones registered five sacks in limited duty as a reserve.

The losses of Greg Walls and Tavares Jurineack at tackle seem even less significant. The Bulls have a solid rotation in Craig Kobel, Matt Groelinger, Broward Holsey, Ramon McCullough and Cedric Battles. That’s not even counting Lee Roy Selmon Jr., who hasn’t played in two years after redshirting in 2001 and injuring his knee before the 2002 season.

Supplanting the Horned Frogs won’t be easy. They have sophomore running back Lontae Hobbs, who rushed for more than a 1,000 yards, even though he didn’t play in the first four games. The plan was to redshirt Hobbs, but after an injury to Ricky Madison, he was forced into action. Between the two, they rushed for more than 1,700 yards.

The passing game, helmed by sophomore Tye Gunn, will determine TCU’s fate. Senior Sean Stilley started eight games, including the bowl game, and must be replaced. Gunn went 4-0 as a starter, but his progress has been hampered by the knee injury that ended his 2002 season and has prevented him from practicing in the spring.

The Bulls know those questions all too well. Junior Ronnie Banks has been Marquel Blackwell’s understudy for three years, but Blackwell’s record-setting career is over, leaving Banks under center. He acquitted himself well in mop-up duty vs. Arkansas and Oklahoma, but being the starter and playing when the score’s still in doubt is another issue. Banks’ career numbers are 23 completions in 40 attempts for 278 yards. He might double those numbers after his first career start.

That’ll be tough since Alabama is the opener Aug. 30. However, the rest of USF’s schedule is another reason why they can surge past TCU. Conference foes Bowling Green and Arkansas have been replaced with Division I-AA Nicholls State. Charleston Southern, which lost to USF 56-6 a year ago, is back for another shot. Cincinnati, Louisville, and yes, TCU, all visit Raymond James Stadium. Those three, combined with USF, comprise 4/5 of the C-USA SIDs’ projected top five.

The Bulls have already proven themselves better than No. 2 team Southern Miss. USF beat the Golden Eagles 16-13 at Raymond James in 2002. Southern Miss can get its revenge in Hattiesburg on Oct. 25.

But Southern Miss lost 1,000-yard rusher Derrick Nix, and the team alternated quarterbacks Dustin Almond and Micky D’Angelo with little success a year ago. The defense does have linebacker Rod Davis and safety Etric Pruitt, preseason All-Americans by Athlon Sports. Davis is a Butkus Award candidate and was the league leader in tackles (168) last season.

The consensus is that USF will enjoy its finest season yet in 2003. With five bowl invitations for C-USA, the Bulls should finally achieve that goal after coming so close a season ago. But there’s a big prize out there for the taking, and that’s the C-USA title and a berth in the Liberty Bowl. USF showed last year that it could hang with C-USA. Now, the Bulls will get their chance to prove that they’re No. 1.