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Has USF Football Been Underachieving On the Field?

Former coach Jim Leavitt, here doing what many of us were doing in our living rooms during some of the losses USF took during the last three years.
Former coach Jim Leavitt, here doing what many of us were doing in our living rooms during some of the losses USF took during the last three years.

"(They) had basically underachieved as they lost more games as a favorite than any other team in the NCAA over the last few years."

Lately I've been perusing the Phil Steele USF forecast with the same laserlike focus and attention to detail that I usually reserve for things like legal documents and pictures of Katy Perry. Of all the nuggets of useful information I've found in the guide (by the way, what are you waiting for, go out and buy it), that quote is the one that interests me the most. I'm taking it a little out of context, because Steele is only referring to the 2008 season. Still, a lot of Bulls fans would readily agree that the team underachieved the last three years. But is it true?

According to Steele's data, USF has lost nine games where it was favored in the last three seasons. But the betting line isn't a good way to decide whether or not you underachieved - that gets influenced by sports books trying to induce action, not from a straight-up analysis of the teams playing each other. So I decided the best place to start was to try and identify what I thought were the contributing factors to losing the games that USF has lost since 2007.

As far as I can tell, there are four contributing factors to losing a game:

  • Inferior talent. This includes team-wide talent gaps, as well as bad matchups that result from one unit being much stronger than its opposing unit.
  • Bad execution by the players. This includes things like dropped passes, missed tackles, poor ball security, missing kicks, and penalties.
  • Inferior coaching. This includes bad strategy, clock mismanagement, botching game situations, the team losing its composure or desire to compete, and anything a coach can control.
  • Bad luck. This includes weather, bad officiating decisions, and the bounce of the ball.

Let's go down the list of losses after the jump:


  • @ Rutgers - Inferior talent (bad matchup), bad luck (officiating)
  • @ Connecticut - Bad execution (multiple goal-line disasters, missed two field goals), bad luck (windy, rainy weather)
  • vs. Cincinnati - Bad execution (8 turnovers), inferior coaching (Kelly took Leavitt to school)
  • vs. Oregon - Inferior talent (overall), bad execution (gave up 56 points), inferior coaching (gave up 56 points, never adjusted to the Ducks' running game)


  • vs. Pittsburgh - Bad execution (poor Tyller Roberts got torched by Pittsburgh's fade passes), inferior coaching (which is hard to do against Wannstedt)
  • @ Louisville - Bad execution (14 penalties, many ill-timed), inferior coaching (even harder to do against Kragthorpe than it is against Wannstedt)
  • @ Cincinnati - Bad execution (costly turnovers)
  • vs. Rutgers - Inferior talent (bad matchup), bad execution (gave up 49 points), inferior coaching (gave up 49 points, let the game go completely to hell in the second half)
  • @ West Virginia - Bad execution (Grothe had his worst game ever), bad luck (snow, two terrible breaks on punt block attempts)


  • vs. Cincinnati - Inferior talent (bad matchup), inferior coaching (Kelly took Leavitt to school again)
  • @ Pittsburgh - Inferior talent (overall), bad execution (never in the game), inferior coaching (never in the game)
  • @ Rutgers - Inferior talent (bad matchup), bad execution (got shut out), bad coaching (got shut out), bad luck (windy, rainy weather took away USF's deep-strike passing game completely)
  • vs. Miami - Inferior talent (overall)
  • @ Connecticut - Inferior talent (bad matchup), inferior coaching (Leavitt coached a terrible game), bad luck (more snow, improbable last-second FG won the game for the Huskies)

Now we have to figure out what factors are worth labeling as "underachieving." Bad matchups shouldn't count, because you can only do what you can do with the players you have. And obviously bad luck shouldn't count. That leaves us with bad execution and inferior coaching.

Here's where it gets subjective - we have to look at how close the games ended up being and see if they were winnable if not for the bad execution and inferior coaching. Again, we'll go year by year.

  • 2007 - USF was favored in all four games they lost. There was no way they were going to beat Oregon, and I'm going to go ahead and say they would not have beaten Rutgers either - they actually played a decent game, but all kinds of deeply weird shit was going down that night. On the other hand, they should have definitely beaten Connecticut and Cincinnati. Then they wouldn't have had to play Oregon in a bowl because they would have won the Big East outright, but we're not going down that rabbit hole.
  • 2008 - I'm conceding Cincinnati as unwinnable. West Virginia was the only game all season where the Bulls weren't favored, but given their history of competitive games, that was probably a toss-up. Rutgers was a toss-up too, even though the lack of coaching adjustments is a big reason why. The Pittsburgh game probably should have been won, and the Louisville loss is one of the worst in USF history.
  • 2009 - I would say the only game USF lost that they should have won was Connecticut, where Leavitt turned in a very bad coaching performance (he totally mangled the end game). Every other loss went the way it probably should have.

So if we're looking at this realistically, there was some underachievement in 2007 and (especially) 2008. Last year is hard to call underachieving when they were rolling with a freshman quarterback and a limited passing offense. Overall, it might not be as severe as Steele's preview insinuates, and it's hard to wrap my head around the idea that 9-4 in 2007 was underachieving, but I think it was definitely there.

Last question - can Skip Holtz do something about this? Phil Steele thinks so. He picked the Bulls to finish third in the conference, higher than just about anyone I've seen, and here's his rationale:

"A couple of times in recent years USF appeared headed to a BE Title but disappointed. Holtz's teams rarely disappoint."