On Dec. 7, 2013, USF’s worst season in history came to a close with a 31-6 loss to Rutgers in Piscataway, NJ.
The loss put a cap on a season where the Bulls won only two games in former coach Willie Taggart’s first year at the helm.
Four seasons and a new coach later, fifth year seniors such as linebacker Auggie Sanchez remember the feeling of the dreadful season the Bulls had in 2013. But instead of dwelling on the negatives, Sanchez said he believes the 2013 and ensuing four-win 2014 season are in part what makes the 2017 Bulls, currently 8-1, so special.
“I think the losing made us who we are, honestly,” Sanchez said. “I think playing with an edge, people not believing in us and people not wanting anything to do with USF, that kind of made us.”
In every season since Sanchez became a Bull, his team has improved, going 8-5 in 2015 and 11-2 in 2016. Sanchez will be one of 24 Bulls’ who will be playing their final home regular season game Thursday night when Tulsa (2-8) comes to Raymond James.
One of those 23 players is quarterback Quinton Flowers.
“Every moment, I’m trying to make it my best moment, just knowing that I’m on my way out,” Flowers said. “I don’t know if I’m going to cry, or what I’m going to do (Thursday).”
Though the Bulls have improved in every season since 2013, they have never reached a conference championship game — let alone won one.
In both 2015 and 2016, the Bulls finished in second place of the AAC East Division, leaving them out of the AAC Championship game by a single game both times. Now in 2017, the Bulls are in second place in the East once again, but can jump No. 15 UCF (9-0) with a win against Tulsa on Thursday and at UCF on Black Friday.
“We’ve been talking about this (conference) championship since I got here,” Sanchez said. “The first couple years, we didn’t get to control that. Every year, we’ve had a team meeting and we said our goal is a conference championship, and we’ve come up short every year. I think this year, there’s a sense of urgency to say, ‘Hey, we really want to get this accomplished.’
“We are in the driver’s seat. That’s something we haven’t been in the past two years.”
In order to control its destiny against UCF, however, the Bulls must first put away Tulsa (2-8), which has only one conference win in 2017.
Though the Golden Hurricanes record isn’t daunting, Tulsa’s lone conference win, a 45-17 rout of Houston on Oct. 14, should cause worry for the Bulls.
USF’s only loss came against the same Cougars that the Golden Hurricanes handled with ease.
In its loss to Houston, USF allowed a season-high 241 yards rushing. The Golden Hurricanes have a run-heavy offense led by D’Angelo Brewer, who leads all AAC running backs in total rushing yards (1099) in 2017.
As a team, the Golden Hurricanes average 248.7 rush yards per game — the 15th best in the nation.
“They’ve got a really good offense,” Sanchez said. “They went and smacked Houston, so they have the opportunity to do that to us now. We can’t let the emotions of senior day get in the way because we’re playing for something a lot bigger than senior day.”
What will be different Thursday from the Houston game, however, is the Bulls mentality, according to Sanchez, which has been different since they fell to Houston 28-24 at Raymond James on Oct. 28.
“I think this year, when we were in the forefront, and everyone was like, ‘Hey, USF is so good,’ that’s not how we built this thing,” Sanchez said. “I think that loss to Houston really helped us get back to playing with an edge and kind of getting back to where we were when we first got here.”
For Flowers, Thursday’s game and every game he’s played in his four-year career as a Bull hasn’t been about just him, but also the city of Tampa.
“At the end of the day, my goal was to come to this school and give the city of Tampa something to talk about when they go around town,” Flowers said. “Out of state, they could be like, ‘Our school in Tampa is doing something.’ That’s the reason I came here.”
Only wins against Tulsa, and UCF stand in the way between USF and the AAC championship game. A win over the Knights, and the Bulls are in. A win over whoever the winner of the AAC West Division — likely Memphis — and USF will be in its first ever New Year’s Six bowl game.
“Walking out on that field, and getting the applause from everybody, knowing that you gave this city something to talk about again,” Flowers said. “Going to get that championship, it’s something that has never been done here. You’ve got to do whatever it takes to win. There’s a lot of goals that are still in front of us.
“We just have to take it one game at a time.”