“To be the best, you have to play the best.”
USF football tweeted out a graphic with those words May 24, lauding its future nonconference schedule, which includes a number of Power Five opponents, including Alabama, Florida and Miami.
A few months later, at the onset of the 2019 season, the Bulls will immediately check a few of those teams off their proverbial to-do list.
USF opens the season Friday evening at Raymond James Stadium with a primetime matchup against No. 19 Wisconsin, then follows up with a trip to Atlanta to face the ACC’s Georgia Tech.
“That’s two Power Fives that you’re playing right out of the gate,” coach Charlie Strong said. “But the thing is, we want those games, and in order for us to take this program where we need to take it, you’re going to have to play those teams — you’re going to have to play very well against those teams.
“And our guys, they understand that challenge and they understand what’s in it and what’s in front of them, but we’re going to have to play well.”
Wisconsin is objectively USF’s biggest home opener in program history. The Badgers are the highest ranked home-opening opponent ever and USF’s highest season-opening opponent since beating No. 16 Notre Dame in South Bend in 2011.
“I think it sets the standard right away,” quarterback Blake Barnett said. “It’s a heavy hitter for the first one. Last year, we played Elon, and I’m not talking down upon Elon, but it’s a different game when you’re going the first week against Wisconsin. It’s going to set the standard for the season, and we want to get the ball rolling in the right direction.”
If recent history is any indicator, the Bulls should be able to do just that. USF has performed well against Power Five opponents in recent years, having won seven of their last eight games against Power Five teams, dating back to a 2015 victory against Syracuse.
It’s not going to be easy, though. The Bulls’ defense, which struggled against the run last season, will be tasked with figuring out how to stop explosive running back Jonathan Taylor. The back-to-back Heisman Trophy candidate rushed for 2,194 yards last season, averaging just over 7 yards a carry.
“If you look at the explosive runs that Taylor had, he’d break tackles at the line of scrimmage,” Strong said, “and he’s fast enough where he can outrun the second level. So we’re going to have to play great defense. We’re going to have to win upfront.”
In fact, the entire Wisconsin offense is a force to be reckoned with.
“You just walk out there and watch them in pregame warmups,” defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. “I think they’re going to have one of the more impressive offensive lines that you’re going to see. And if you’re a good tight end, Wisconsin’s probably a great place to go. I think their tight ends are probably going to be, as a group, probably collectively the best group we’ll face.”
Jean-Mary’s defense will have to do it without senior linebacker Nico Sawtelle, however. Sawtelle, who missed the last half of the 2018 season with a neck injury, was “banged up” in practice last week, according to Strong. The current injury is a reaggravation of what is being described as a “chronic” injury, according to The Daily Stampede.
Friday’s opener will also be the first time new offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell’s offense goes up against actual opposition since Bell was hired in January.
A big factor in whether the Bulls will have success offensively will be staying disciplined, according to Bell. In fact, taking too many penalties was one of the few things Strong consistently mentioned after each scrimmage during fall camp.
“They’re going to make you earn it,” Bell said. “So as a first-year offense, you’ve got to now put together five-six-seven play-drives, and that’s going to be a big key for us. How disciplined within that system, seeing different things for the first time on a game situation, how we’re going to react, how we’re going to make sure that we can continue to keep positive plays back-to-back-to-back-to-back to be able to score.”
No matter what happens Friday, it’ll happen in front of a near-capacity crowd. USF is nearing a lower bowl sellout, with 10,000 seats total reserved for students.
While Raymond James Stadium’s upper deck will still be closed, if the lower bowl sells out, Friday’s announced attendance would be 48,007, which would be a larger crowd than any game USF played last season, home or away, with the exception of Black Friday’s War on I-4 game against UCF.
“We’re getting right into it, playing a Power Five school,” Barnett said. “It’s going to be a big stage, big stage, Friday night game, ESPN. It’s going to be big time.”
The Bulls and Badgers kick off Friday at 7 p.m.