Just six years after the team played its first game, the USF football team entered Conference USA. They went 9-2 in their lone I-A season as an independent, and probably would have gone to a bowl game were it not for the lack of a conference affiliation.
Of course, everyone knows all this already. It is all anyone hears about when the USF football team is discussed. The ESPN2 announcers who covered the team’s game against TCU on Oct. 10 could talk about nothing but the team’s quick ascent. Only now is the team reaching a point where not everything it does is a first. The football team entered this season with seven years of momentum carrying it, and I am sure I was not the only one who expected them to put up a strong showing in their inaugural C-USA season.
The team opened the year with a 40-17 loss at Alabama, a game that simultaneously validated my hopes for the team’s season and sent an alarm to USF supporters. USF came out strong and led 17-7 with less than two minutes left in the first half but collapsed and gave up 33 unanswered points. While it turns out that Alabama is a mediocre team — the Crimson Tide are 3-6 and have lost five of their last six games — it was still USF playing against an elite program, and thus, it was easier to look just at their first half success and see the promise.
Then there was Nicholls State. USF was down 17-7 to the Colonels, a I-AA team, before a touchdown in the final minute of the first half and a 13-point second half gave them a 10-point victory. USF then won 28–0 against Army, who I don’t think has won a game since World War II, before entering the heart of its schedule.
USF won a dramatic contest in double overtime to hand Louisville its only loss of the season thus far. It was an emotional win against a good conference rival, a win that renewed my hopes for the team. Even the 13-10 loss to unbeaten TCU the following week was impressive, though disappointing. The Bulls then slaughtered I-AA Charleston Southern, 55-7, winning convincingly in what should have been an easy win for a team that hopes to soon be considered among the nation’s best. However, the team then lost 27-6 at Southern Miss in a game that virtually eliminated them from the conference title race.
Are the Bulls the team that handed Louisville its first loss of the season and nearly did the same to TCU, a team ranked No. 12 in this week’s BCS standings? Or are they the team that struggles against Nicholls State and blows 10-point leads? I let this seventh year of hype convince me they were the former, but Saturday’s loss in Hattiesburg has me looking more closely at the latter.
Perhaps former quarterback Marquel Blackwell’s great career has manipulated my perception of the team. He was great for the development of the team, and it would be hard for successor Ronnie Banks to carry the team the way Blackwell did. The team also lost linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who in April became the first former USF player to be chosen in the second round of the NFL draft when the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him 47th overall.
But I just don’t understand how a team can beat Louisville, now No. 25, and hang with now No.8 TCU, then lose by three touchdowns at SMU, a team with a 4-3 record that needs binoculars to see the rankings. Even without the stars of years past, the Bulls should either be a good team or a bad team. Instead, they play at a top-25 caliber one week and at a Division I-AA level the next.
Coach Jim Leavitt has said, as any coach would, that there are no easy wins, and the team takes no opponent for granted. But I find it hard to believe that many teams among the nation’s top 30, a group that has included USF on multiple occasions, fear Nicholls State, a team ranked 43rd in Division I-AA. The team needs to find consistency before I can get behind them like I was entering this year.
And now, with Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami jumping to the ACC, there is speculation of USF jumping to the Big East. USF would get destroyed in the Big East in football. Even with the conference losing three good teams, if USF thinks Nicholls State and Charleston Southern are frightening, then Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Syracuse must look downright lethal.
This team should be proud of what it has accomplished. Leavitt and players from both past and present deserve the endless praise they seem to get. They still even have a chance at going to their first bowl game, provided they win their final four games. But I, at least, have been reminded that the team’s greatest achievement is derived from its biggest weakness — its age.