Bulls open season Saturday

Tennessee-Martin vs. No. 19 USF
When: Sat., 7:30 p.m.
Where: Raymond James Stadium
TV/Radio: Catch 47

For the masses of awaiting fans, football season is here.

The Bulls will look to forget about the unknown highs (being ranked No. 2 in the initial Bowl Championship Series poll) and crushing lows (a three-game Big East losing streak, a 56-21 loss to Oregon in the Brut Sun Bowl) of 2007 as they strive to improve in 2008.

In the first test of the season, the Bulls will host the University of Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks — a team that won the Ohio Valley Conference Championship in 2006.

“Tennessee-Martin is a very good football team,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “I said last year before the game against Elon that they were a good football team, and we were fortunate to win that game. I expect this to be a very good football game.”

The Skyhawks are a Division 1-AA team, now known as the Football Championship Subdivision, and Leavitt said they have the players to keep the game competitive.

“They are returning a lot of players to their team this year,” Leavitt said. “Their defensive front is very strong, and they have a very good secondary.”

The Bulls have a recent history of struggling in games against FCS teams.

In 2006, the Bulls were leading McNeese State 14-10 at halftime and took only an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter before opening that game up.

USF also had a tough time against Elon last year, coming away with a 28-13 win.

Junior quarterback Matt Grothe said he couldn’t explain the Bulls’ opening game struggles.

“I really have no idea why we’ve struggled against these teams,” he said.  “I think we just need to go out there and execute, but I don’t think there’s really one answer as to why we’ve struggled.”

The Bulls will be taking the field with what looks like a completely new defensive unit.

USF had to replace five starters on defense, three of whom are playing in the NFL.

“I think that the guys coming in are guys that have played a lot of football,” Leavitt said.  “I expect them to come in and do a good job for us.”

One player stepping into a pivotal role is junior middle linebacker Kion Wilson. Not only is Saturday night’s game his first as a Bull, he is stepping into the spot vacated by former linebacker Ben Moffitt.

“Getting ready for my first game is 100 percent mental for me right now — just remembering plays, preparing for the game and stepping into Ben Moffitt’s shoes is something I’m looking forward to,” Wilson said. “I wasn’t here last year, but, from what I’ve seen out of this team, we’re running on all cylinders and we’re ready to go.”

One addition to the starting lineup is sophomore wide receiver A.J. Love, who had eight catches for 111 yards and a touchdown last season.

Leavitt said that Love has been impressive during camp, and earned his spot as a starter.

While the Bulls have a lot of new starters on defense, they return nearly all of last year’s offense.

“Everybody on the receiving crew can step up and make plays,” Grothe said. “We have a lot of young guys who are going to step up and surprise some people.”