Get to know USF’s 2021 opponents

USF students fresh out of the pandemic will have the chance to attend their first in-person home football game Sept. 11 against UF. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/USF ATHLETICS

With perhaps its toughest schedule since the 2017 season, including a couple of games against multiple preseason top 25 teams, coach Jeff Scott and the USF football team will have their hands full as they try to bounce back from last year’s 1-8 showing. 

Highlights of this year’s schedule include home games against No. 17 Florida and No. 8 Cincinnati, both of which will be vying for spots in the College Football Playoff.

Here’s a breakdown of USF’s opponents this season.

@ NC State (Sept. 2)

Head coach: Dave Doeren (ninth season)

Record in 2020: 8-4 (7-3 ACC)

After suffering a broken foot that ruled him out for most of last season, redshirt sophomore Devin Leary will return as starting quarterback for the Wolfpack this season.

He was most recently named to the preseason watchlist for the 2021 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s top upperclassman quarterback. Containing Leary will be integral to USF’s success in Week 1.

Vs. No. 17 Florida  (Sept. 11)

Head coach: Dan Mullen (fourth season)

Record in 2020: 8-4 (8-2 SEC)

Fresh off yet another appearance in the SEC championship game, UF will be one of the toughest matchups for the Bulls this season. The Gators are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. 

Offensively, the highly touted redshirt junior Emory Jones will replace Heisman finalist Kyle Trask. Jones is also on the Johnny Unitas watchlist. He threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns in nine appearances last season.

On the defensive side, junior cornerback Kaiir Elam and redshirt senior defensive lineman Zachary Carter were named to the 2021 Preseason Coaches All-SEC First Team. Elam is also projected as a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft, according to Pro Football Network.

Vs. Florida A&M (Sept. 18)

Head coach: Willie Simmons (fourth season)

Record in 2020: 0-0

After having last season canceled due to COVID-19, the Rattlers had quite the coaching turnover, announcing three new coaches coming in for the new season.

Ryan Stanchek will be the new co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Shane Tucker will serve as the running backs coach, and Milton Patterson is the new defensive line coach. 

Away from the coaching staff, fans can keep an eye on redshirt senior wide receiver Xavier Smith, who was named to the MEAC First Team in 2019 after an impressive season where he led the MEAC in receiving yards (928), receiving yards per game (116.6) and receptions (62). 

This year will also be FAMU’s first season competing in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

 @ BYU (Sept. 25)

Head coach: Kalani Sitake (sixth season)

Record in 2020: 11-1

The Cougars are likely to regress following one of the best seasons in program history, which saw the school beat UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Replacing the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft is never easy, but sophomore quarterback Jaren Hall will be tasked with it after Zach Wilson was selected by the Jets in April.

The sophomore quarterback started twice in 2019, throwing for 420 yards and touchdown, but injuries and the talent of Wilson caused Hall to spend plenty of time on the sidelines in 2020. 

 @ SMU (Oct. 2)

Head coach: Sonny Dykes (fifth season)

2020 Record: 7-3 (4-3 AAC)

The Mustangs were tabbed to finish third in the AAC by preseason media poll behind Cincinnati and UCF, respectively.

The Cougars return 18 starters from last year’s team that saw themselves reach as high as No.16 in the polls.

SMU still has not yet determined who its starting quarterback will be for the new season, but the battle continues between junior quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who transferred from Oklahoma University, and fellow junior quarterback Derek Green. 

 Vs. Tulsa (Oct. 16)

Head coach: Philip Montgomery (seventh season)

Record in 2020: 6-3 (6-0 AAC)

The big news coming out from the Tulsa camp is that the Hurricanes will have the same starting quarterback in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2016 with redshirt senior Zach Smith.

Smith posted big numbers last season as he threw for 1,947 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also completed 56% of his passes and led his team to three comeback wins. 

Defensively, losing AAC defensive player of the year Zaven Collins will hurt a team that ranked second in the conference in points allowed.

Vs. Temple (Oct. 23)

Head coach: Rod Carey (third season)

Record in 2020: 1-6 (1-6 AAC)

The Owls were able to bring in redshirt freshman quarterback D’Wan Mathis via the transfer portal from Georgia, a former four star recruit coming out of high school, according to 247Sports.

Carey didn’t wait long to name Mathis his starter in 2020, beating out redshirt sophomore Re-al Mitchell and graduate student Anthony Russo for the job.

Temple was ranked second to last in the preseason media poll, but a player of Mathis’ stature, a former four-star recruit, may give an Owls’ offense that scored just 19.9 points per game a little more pop.

@ ECU (Oct. 28)

Head coach: Mike Houston (third season)

Record in 2020: 3-6 (3-5 AAC)

The Bulls will have to travel to Greenville, NC, to take on the Pirates and will be looking to avenge one of their most disappointing losses of 2020.

Last season, ECU defeated USF 44-24 in Raymond James Stadium and failed to take advantage of a defense that allowed 35.4 points per game, the third worst in the AAC.

If the Bulls want to change the outcome this time around, containing junior quarterback Holton Ahlers, who lit them up last year for 222 yards and three touchdowns, will be huge.

Vs. Houston (Nov. 6)

Head coach: Dana Holgorsen (third season)

Record in 2020: 3-5 (3-3 AAC)

Junior quarterback Clayton Tune is entering his second consecutive year as the full-time starter for the Cougars.

Tune stepped into the starting role in 2019 after former Houston quarterback D’Eriq King decided to redshirt and eventually transfer to Miami. He started every game in 2020 for Houston, tallying 2,048 passing yards on a 59.6% completion rate.

Specifically against the Bulls, Tune was 14-for-25 passing the ball for 165 yards and three touchdowns. He also did work in the ground game, rushing for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 10 attempts.

Vs. No. 8 Cincinnati (Nov. 12)

Head coach: Luke Fickell (fifth season)

Record in 2020: 9-1 (6-0 AAC)

If the AP Poll is any indication, the Bearcats will be the toughest task for the Bulls in 2021.

A preseason top 10 team, Cincinnati is returning senior quarterback Desmond Ridder on the offensive side of the ball, and junior cornerback Ahmad Gardner on the defensive end.

The Bearcats are one of the most complete teams in the country averaging 37.5 points per game and holding their opponents to 16.8, best in the conference.

@ Tulane (Nov. 20)

Head coach: Willie Fritz (sixth season)

Record in 2020: 6-6 (3-5 AAC)

Freshman quarterback Michael Pratt gave Tulane a strong boost last season in his first collegiate season.

Pratt led the Green Wave to a 6-6 overall record and ended the season with 1,806 passing yards and 20 passing touchdowns to go along with just eight interceptions. He also logged another eight touchdowns on the ground.

@ UCF (Nov. 26)

Head coach: Gus Malzahn (first season)

Record in 2020: 6-4, (5-3 AAC)

In an exciting matchup last season, the Bulls nearly came back from a first-half deficit to beat the Knights in the final game of the season, but ultimately fell 58-46.

Junior quarterback Dillon Gabriel is one of the more impressive quarterbacks the AAC has to offer, rarely turning the ball over while still posting big numbers.

With an offensive-minded head coach like Malzahn taking over the program after a great run at Auburn, the Knights will likely continue their streak of being the league’s top offense.