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Football end-of-season report card: Golesh and the Bulls defy the odds

The Bulls ended a historic first season under coach Alex Golesh with a 45-0 blowout of former conference rival Syracuse. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

On July 25, the American Preseason Media Poll ranked South Florida 13th out of 14 teams in the conference, setting low expectations for a team that was considered one of the worst in the nation.

Then, the Bulls did what no one expected them to do. 

USF capped off their first year under coach Alex Golesh with a 7-6 record, the highest win total since 2018 and the second-biggest turnaround in the nation behind Northwestern. 

The season came to a thrilling conclusion with a 45-0 win over Syracuse in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 21. It was the largest shutout win in collegiate bowl history, and USF’s first postseason victory since its 2017 win over Texas Tech in the Birmingham Bowl.

Related: USF routes Syracuse in Boca Raton Bowl

Here’s an overview of an unforeseen and record-breaking season:

Game of the year – vs. Charlotte (Nov. 25)

The Bulls ended their regular season in dominant fashion, securing a spot in the postseason with a 48-14 victory over the 49ers. 

Brown threw for 253 yards and four touchdowns in the win, adding another 49 yards rushing and another score. 

The freshman phenom surpassed the 3,000 passing yard mark in the game, becoming the first USF quarterback to do so in program history. It was also the third time he scored five touchdowns in a game, also doing so against Florida A&M on Sept. 9 and Memphis on Nov. 4. 

Related: USF ends five-year bowl drought with 48-14 win over Charlotte

As the game ended, players and coaches converged on the field and celebrated the team’s first bowl berth in five years. 

Heartbreaking loss – vs. Alabama (Sept. 16)

For the second consecutive season, USF came up just short against a ranked SEC foe. 

The Bulls lost 17-3 against the then No. 10 Crimson Tide in a bizarre, rain-soaked matchup that was delayed over an hour due to thunderstorms. 

Alabama (12-2, 8-0 SEC) didn’t take the lead until the four-minute mark in the third quarter. Despite the Bulls’ offense failing to gain much momentum, the defense dominated against one of the top teams in the country. 

Notably, the Crimson Tide started redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner, who only completed five passes for 34 yards. Sophomore Jalen Milroe, who started in every other game for Alabama, led them to the College Football Playoffs. 

Related: Defense dominates, offense falls short in 17-3 loss to Alabama

                       Boasting a fast and prolific offense

Under Golesh – who previously led the nation’s top offense at Tennessee in 2022 – the Bulls ran the fastest, and were one of the most potent offensive attacks in college football. 

USF ran 82.1 plays per game, leading the NCAA.

The Bulls finished 4th in the conference and 17th in the nation in offensive yardage, averaging 451.6 per game. 

Senior wide receiver Sean Atkins became a breakout weapon on the Bulls’ offense, setting both the program’s single-season yards and receptions records.

Atkins – a former walk-on – finished the season with 92 receptions for 1,054 yards and seven touchdowns. 

Ascending into one of the most consistent receivers in the nation, Atkins ranked 8th in the FBS with 7.1 receptions per game, as well as 25th in the country in receiving yards. 

          A shining star at QB

Byrum Brown excelled in his redshirt freshman season, totaling 37 touchdowns in his first year as a full-time starter.

He became the first 3,000-yard passer in program history against Charlotte on Nov. 25, finishing with 3,292 yards on the season.

Brown also broke Quinton Flowers’ 2017 record of 25 touchdown passes in a season, finishing with 26 of his own. 

His ability to run made him one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. He finished as one of two quarterbacks in the nation to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 800 yards, joining LSU senior and Heisman winner Jayden Daniels in that category.                 

An aggressive, yet porous defense

For the second consecutive season, USF was plagued by poor defensive play. The Bulls ranked 115th in the FBS in yards allowed per game with 432.5. 

The Bulls defense struggled heavily during the middle of the season, allowing over 50 points to UAB on Oct. 7, FAU on Oct. 14, and Memphis on Nov. 4. The Tigers’ (10-3, 6-2 AAC) 59 points against the Bulls were the most allowed in program history. 

Related: USF’s comeback attempt falls short in offensive showdown against Memphis

Despite struggling at times, the Bulls benefitted from an aggressive approach by first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Patrick. They tied for 12th in the nation with 24 forced turnovers and tied for 7th in tackles for loss per game, with 7.5.

The Bulls also closed out the season allowing only 14 points in the final two games. They racked up a combined seven forced turnovers against Charlotte and Syracuse.

   Looking ahead

The bar is set high for next season as Golesh and the Bulls re-entered the national conversation with an unforeseen turnaround that led to postseason contention. 

With USF finishing out at No. 49 in Rivals’ 2024 Recruiting Rankings, and nabbing several key transfers out of the portal, the future is bright for a program that has seemed to shake the dust of its past turmoil. 

Grade: A-