For USF, any loss the rest of the season has the potential to foil its chances of making it to the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
With so much at stake and a No. 16 ranking next to their title, every team remaining on the Bulls’ schedule — including Tulane, which the Bulls play Saturday — will have even more incentive to upset USF.
“You’re going to get their best shot,” coach Charlie Strong said. “Just go watch college football week-in and week-out. Watch what happens to teams that were favored by so much and they go get beat.”
The Bulls are currently favored by 11 1/2 points in its 7 p.m. prime time matchup at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans.
“We’ve got a tough opponent coming up in South Florida,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us. We’ve got a week of practice so we can play lights out Saturday night.”
Fritz also stressed USF’s ranking in the polls, its top-10 run offense and defense and how the Bulls will be the highest ranked opponent to play in New Orleans “in a long time.”
The Green Wave’s offense in the 2017 season has relied on running its unique version of the triple option, with more passing than the traditional triple option offense.
“For the defense, it’s going to be a little different because it’s option football,” Strong said. “We have to be disciplined.”
The Bulls are currently ranked in the top-10 in both rushing defense (third) and rushing offense (eigth) nationally, but have yet to play against a team that runs an option-style offense since they defeated Navy 52-48 in October 2016.
The Green Wave has scored 19 rushing touchdowns this season, three of which were rushes for over 50 yards. Eight different players have scored on the ground for the Green Wave.
Tulane’s quarterback, Jonathan Banks, has thrown four touchdowns in addition to three rushing touchdowns and is the team’s second-leading rusher with 59 carries for 267 yards. Tulane’s lead running back, Dontrell Hilliard, has run for 607 yards and eight touchdowns on 90 carries this season.
Tulane has run the ball 299 times this season compared to just 91 passing attempts.
The Bulls, meanwhile, are coming off of their worst offensive outing of the season against Cincinnati. If it weren’t for Sanchez’s pick six, the Bulls would’ve scored fewer than 30 points for the first time in 22 games.
While the offense struggled, however, the Bulls have had consistency from kicker Emilio Nadelman, as he accounted for 15 of USF’s 33 points against Cincinnati, making all four of his field goal attempts.
On defense, a mix between senior leadership and young talent has paved the way for USF to lead the nation in interceptions with 15 and be in the top-10 for total defense.
“The younger guys are really buying into what’s going on and what’s at stake,” lineman Deadrin Senat said. “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for years — win a conference championship. Now we know that we can do it.”
In addition to being dominant on the line, the Bulls have been able to produce points on defense. Auggie Sanchez returned a 65-yard interception for a touchdown against Cincinnati, which was his second of the season.
“I see him as a true leader,” Senat said. “On and off the field, he’s a leader. He takes command and he does the right things all the time, and that’s what I like about Auggie. He’s a great dude overall and he’s a freak when it comes to football.”
After missing two weeks with a shoulder injury, Dangelo Antoine returned against Cincinnati and led USF with three catches for 50 yards.
“It felt great to be back out there with my teammates, to help make plays for my teammates,” Antoine said. “It was something I was looking forward to, just to get back out there and be with my team.”