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A Somewhat Obligatory Assessment Of: South Florida

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By popular demand, mostly from nervous Auburn fans, I think...
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The least you should know about South Florida...
2006 Record
9-4 (4-3 Big East, T-Fourth)
Past Five Years
35-23 (16-14 C-USA/Big East)
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (6 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
Ben Moffitt has spent the last two seasons as second fiddle to NFL-bound Stephen Nicholas at linebacker, but comes back as a senior the undisputed leader of a veteran defense. Moffitt isn’t the roving athlete Nicholas was, but he is a big (240), experienced run-stopping force in the middle who has 25 tackles for loss over two years.
Bizarre Tradition
Florida is a cattle-raising state, or was in 1962, at least, when the USF student body voted to mimic Texas’ steer-based mascot tradition with the "Golden Brahman," later changed to "Golden Bulls" for rather obvious reasons. It also took on the Lone Star State’s immutable affinity for hand signs, developing a "Go Bulls" signal that falls somewhere between "Hook ‘em Horns," "Rock and Roll!," Shaka Bra," depending on its specific deployment (left). Odds are you’ve unwittingly rooted for USF at a Malevolent Creation show, which is really just pathetically grindcore of you, if you want to know the truth.

What's Changed: Pundits are noticing, for one. Nobody cared much when eight and nine-win USF teams were annually snubbed for bowl games in favor of 6-5 retreads and blatantly less achieving teams from its own conference in the early years of the decade, except to wonder when Jim Leavitt was finally going to bail this backwater construction job for lucre at Kansas State or Alabama or whatever prestige project intended to make the man for real. These days, opinionistas clamber over one another en route to the bandwagon, hoping to be the first to dust off the annual don't look now... routine:

The Sporting News (Ntl. Rank: #21): "Conventional wisdom suggests three teams, Rutgers, West Virginia and Louisville, will compete for the Big East title. That's probably true, but anyone who limits the discussion to that trio has not been paying attention ... South Florida has steadily improved and suddenly is primed to join the conference elite."

Lindy's: "South Florida travels to Auburn for its second game of the season, so we'll find out if this team can compete with the heavyweights in 2007. If anything, they'll compete in the Big East, as they proved last season with a
24-19 win at West Virginia ... a Big East crown is a possibility. Remember, the Bulls drubbed then No. 9 Louisville 48-14 in Raymond James Stadium in 2005."

Phil Steele (Ntl. Rank: #24): "I very nearly pulled the trigger and called for the Bulls to win the Big East ... It would not surprise me at all to see the Bulls run the table and go 7-0 in Big East play!! This preseason everyone is talking Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers but USF could top them all."

Et cetera. You get the picture.

A true company man: Jim Leavitt ain't going nowhere.
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These accounts simultaneously announce that they recognize USF's success and that, rhetoric aside, they don't really believe it - Lindy's still wonders, for example, whether a team that's beaten Louisville and West Virginia in the last two seasons and had a fourth quarter lead over Rutgers last year can "compete with the heavyweights," and TSN notes the "sudden" rise of a program that's had eight winning seasons in nine years in increasingly competitive surroundings. What's sudden is the recognition, and its enthusiasm over this wonderful new discovery is competing to be more egregious than its tardiness.

What's the Same: The catalyst for USF's ascendency at this particular time, we're led to believe, is the freewheeln' Matt Grothe, whose stature grew exponentially over the offseason, but we'll get back to him directly. Leavitt's teams have always been tougher on the other side:

USF Defense in Div. I-A
Year Total (Rank) Scoring Pass Eff. D Yds/Carry PPG by ?.500
2001 348.8 (38) 21.0 (29) 114.5 (42) 2.9 32.7
2002 308.9 (17) 18.5 (20) 106.7 (24) 2.3 19.3
2003 315.6 (17) 20.4 (25) 102.1 (8) 3.0 21.0
2004 398.5 (77) 31.9 (94) 144.2 (105) 3.7 34.4
2005 311.9 (17) 18.0 (14) 109.4 (16) 3.9 21.6
2006 298.5 (25) 16.9 (18) 104.3 (11) 3.3 16.3

2004, the only losing season and the season with the fewest returning starters (five), stands out like a sore thumb adorned with pulsing buboes in an otherwise steadily improving run of competence. Those numbers wouldn't be quite spectacular enough to point out if it weren't for their consistency, or the return of most of the individuals responsible for returning to form the last two years. That includes Ben Moffitt, George Selvie, Allen Cray and Chris Robinson on a productive, pass rush-oriented front seven, but not Danny Verpaele, who's bounced around with injuries since he was an all-C-USA safety in 2004, or Tyrone McKenzie, second in the Big 12 in tackles last year at Iowa State, who through some kind of glitch will be able to move immediately into one of the linebacker spots vacated by the Bulls' best defensive player the last three years, Stephen Nicholas. USF also gets a corner back, Trae Williams, who led the Big East with seven interceptions, though taken in concert with his seven pass breakups, there has to be some question why teams continued to test his side of the field. There's the also the matter of playing in the Big East to begin with, which outside of Brian Brohm tends to skew all passing numbers drastically downward.

Size might be an issue along the front four, which can get after the quarterback (six games with three or more sacks last year) but only averages 267 pounds with no massive, hole-plugging bodies in the 300-pound range that passes for average on the offensive lines of Auburn, Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia. King Dunlap or Jeremy Zuttah against 255-pound Jarriett Blue is not a good scenario for the Bulls.

When Did You First Notice This Grothe?: An anonymous coach in The Sporting News calls Grothe - over Brian Brohm - "the Joe Montana of the Big East," reinforcing the sophomore-to-be's appearance on hastily-assembled Heisman lists made by people who have probably never seen Grothe play outside of a highlight reel as well as the front-page "legend" storyline hyped this spring by the Worldwide Leader, which was itself a reflection/product/reinforcement of a YouTube project for a fan site some guy made for his class. All of which came out of Grothe's 326-yard, two-touchdown breakout in the upset at West Virginia and a quick glance at the stat sheet, where they were no doubt struck breathless and dumb by Grothe's status as the Bulls' leading rusher, as well.

First, I don't trust Grothe because of his mug shot:

...which awakens long-suppressed pubescent survival instincts in my fundamentally beta male psyche. I shrink from him, yet, as if commanded, cannot bring myself to look away. I feel when I gaze on young Matthew's shorn scalp as if I'm staring vacantly, involuntarily into his soul, into an execrable, sneering collaboration of testosterone and id; somehow, without explanation or precedent, I find the absence of a unibrow unsettling, incomplete. Certainly, in the most primal sense of the word, he is quarterback.

The other thing holding me up about Grothe is that, while he vastly improved the Bulls' previously atrocious completion percentage under Pat Julmiste and, subsequently, their overall passing prowess, he remained somewhat interception prone (14 picks, which did not improve as the season progressed) and represented no gain for USF on the scoreboard: the 23 points per game last year tied 2005 as the lowest scoring production since the team moved up to the I-A level. Grothe was very good against West Virginia (where he did throw two interceptions, for the record), Central Florida and Syracuse, but not so hot by the same turn against  Florida Atlantic or Kansas and flatly terrible in the loss at Cincinnati (11-21, 47 yds., 1 INT) in which the Bulls only scored two field goals. You know, he was a redshirt freshman. USF very likely does not beat West Virginia - and therefore makes no ripples, and generates no offseason hyperbole for its quarterback - if the defense doesn't a) hold driving WVU to two field goals early and b) recover the "oh shit" touchdown on a Pat White fumble to go ahead in the second quarter.

So maybe the unease is this: Grothe for now seems like slightly more style than substance, and either way, he is it for the offense. The receivers are lanky and therefore widely considered "athletic," or some variation thereof ("coltish" is a nice touch by Lindy's), but they were held under 200 yards as a group in seven games and come off as interchangeable possession types; LSU refugee Amp Hill was ruled ineligible this week after being suspended during the spring for, really, excessive celebration during a scrimmage. The running game didn't help, what there was of it aside from Grothe's wild, gritty dashes, which is the main reason ex-Alabama signee Mike Ford is being welcomed aboard as a potential savior at running back - well, a potential complement to the savior, anyway, which amounts to the same thing.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: Nothing to see here, folks -- the defenses dominated the Green and Gold Game, a 7-6 affair won a late touchdown run by Grothe, but per spring tradition, the low, low scoring was only the result of the new coordinator settling in with a scaled-back, stripped down playbook, natch. Ford's first forays into the lineup generated the most buzz, but only about 55 yards in the final scrimmage, where he did at least demonstrate "power and quickness" on a 26-yard run that featured "a bowled-over would-be tackler." Great news for Ford; not so much for the tackler.

South Florida on YouTube: Mike Ford will be a freshman despite having come out of high school in 2004, when he was busy making the less gifted teenagers of Florida look even more clumsy and out-of-place than their tortured, Hoobastank-loving souls already felt:

He appears to have the patented NCAA R1 hop down cold (I'm going off the PS2 version there) with the occasional well-timed spin in play. Well played, Ford.

See Also: Rocky gets down at the Bowl, as only an anthropomorphic bull could ... Some love for the best player in USF history (so far), the unsung Andre Hall ... And some guy going crazy at the USF-FIU game. Don't ask why.

Conventional Wisdom: Most of the mags float USF as a Big East contender with West Virginia and Louisville both coming to Tampa, but they universally peg the Bulls fourth in the conference behind last year's Big Three, with the exception of Steele, who likes USF enough to slip them ahead of Rutgers in the third spot. That still only gets them into the Car Care Bowl, though, no great leap.

Oh yeah, South Florida's all grown up, filled out, hanging with hotter friends, looking pretty good in the right circumstances. You know you could pick USF if you wanted, dude. No one would judge you. Hell, they'd pick USF, too, if they were in your shoes. Sooner or later, though, comes the regret. Always the regret.
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Best-Case: Given the unprecedented expectations, a win at Auburn in week two might supercede the Louisville/West Virginia upsets of the last two years as the most monumental in USF history, because it was instantly confirm it as a national player. It's not conceivable to me that the Bulls might run the table against WVU, Rutgers and Louisville, but if wins two of them (again, the Mountaineers and Cardinals come to Tampa, where UL was shellacked in `05), look out, BCS. I want to put a ten-win cap on these guys, but what the hell; who am I to quash the dreams of 11-1? Especially when I can also...

Worst-Case: ...realistically construct a losing record out of Auburn, potentially resurgnet North Carolina, West Virginia, Rutgers, Cincinnati, Louisville and Pittsburgh in the cold. You could add rebounding Central Florida to that list, too; USF's not so hoity toity it can't still be knocked down a notch by one of its C-USA replacements. A 5-7 season amid such high initial hopes would be like going back to square one.

Non-Binding Forecast: I won't call for the sophomore slump on Grothe, since Pat White burned me last year when applied that status to him, but I do not think he's going to compete for the Heisman. Correspondingly, I do not think USF will beat Auburn, and I'd be stunned if it handled West Virginia two years in a row; those losses in themselves represent a 2-2 start (dangerously presuming a win over UNC) and widespread bandwagon bailing. I'm down on the Bulls beating Louisville for the second time in three years. I have a little more optimism when it comes to Rutgers, whose passing game still leaves me cold, but I also have a suspicion that Cincinnati - who I think is the real overlooked team in this conference - or Pittsburgh may contribute to USF's woes if the Knights don't. And maybe even if they do, but I'll stop there: 8-4, 5-3 in the league. Deja vu, but with a whole lot less goodwill about it than last time.

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Previous assessments, absurd, reasonable and otherwise:

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple
June 1: Houston June 12: Wyoming June 14: Nebraska June 25: Florida International
June 27: Oregon State July 2: Michigan July 6: Washington July 9: Boise State
July 11: Georgia Tech