Believe me, I want to be wrong.
I want USF Football to go undefeated this upcoming season and play in a New Year's Day Bowl Game. I want USF to win the first-ever AAC Championship game, as I am a diehard Bulls fan. After all, why would I put myself through this otherwise? And I'll be at every home game as well as FSU & Maryland (flights are booked) and maybe a few more road trips too, and will enjoy spending time with my fellow Bulls. No matter what, I'll always be there. I've done so my entire adult life, and that's not changing.
But I am also a realist, and absolutely nothing I've seen portends significant improvement in USF Football.
The Spring Game was just another indication of the impending doom. The offense looked as muted and incompetent as ever. None of the five quarterbacks looked anywhere near ready to lead an offense, combining to go 24 of 52 with 0 TD's and three INT's. Steven Bench was the winning starter, and he was 5 of 11 for 48 yards and two INT's (EDIT: one that wasn't his fault on an end-of-half heave, and one that killed a scoring drive).
He also had the only TD of the game, a nice zone read keeper down the right sideline for 62 yards. There was a lot more zone read mixed in the play calling, and the quarterbacks being down via touch instead of tackle took away a portion of the elusiveness of both Bench & Quinton Flowers. But that can only account for so much of their inherent shortcomings. USF needed to upgrade at the position in the offseason, and completely failed to do so. Brett Kean will arrive as a true freshman from Ohio in the fall, but unless he's something absolutely no one thinks he is, the QB carousel under Willie Taggart will continue.
FUN FACT: The last three scholarship quarterbacks that attended USF out of high school have all transferred (Gunsby, Floyd, White).— Ryan T. Smith (@USFRyan) April 1, 2015
FUN FACT #2: USF quarterbacks since BJ Daniels have completed 48.2% of their passes for 172.5 ypg, 18 TD, 32 int. 6 wins, 21 losses.— Ryan T. Smith (@USFRyan) April 1, 2015
It's hard not to like and root for Quinton Flowers. He walked up to all of us in the media after the Spring Game and shook all of our hands, and everyone raves about the type of kid he is. And you can see the athletic ability in flashes. But look at this play where Ryan Smith and I almost got run over on the sidelines:
It seems a team that was 123rd out of 128 in S&P offense last season hasn't improved in any significant way that we can see. And keep in mind that number would have been far, far worse without the quarterback that's no longer here.
Marlon Mack is of course a really good piece to have at running back. But who's going to block for him? The offensive line looks like swiss cheese left at the end of a firing range, and it appears Stanford transfer Reilly Gibbons won't be able to help until 2016. Who is going to throw the ball to a so-far unimpressive group of receivers and help keep eight and nine defenders out of the box? How is this offense going to move the football?
It does appear the defense has made some strides. Tashon Whitehurst was an absolute beast last Saturday (19 tackles, a pick, and a sack), and there's a confidence and swagger defensively that looks promising. But in modern college football, with the rules so biased towards the offense, being able to score touchdowns consistently on a good percentage of offensive drives is the most likely path to long-term winning.
It's April 3rd, and I've already given up on USF Football in 2015. The Bulls were somewhat lucky to be 4-8 last year (remember: if Andre Davis gets called for a pushoff on the winning touchdown at a then-winless SMU, this is even worse), and they face a tougher schedule this season. And it's not exactly a secret that if Willie Taggart doesn't get the Bulls to a bowl game this year, we'll be paying him his $350,000 a year to not coach USF through 2017 to go with the $500,000 we're already paying Skip Holtz to coach Louisiana Tech through 2017.
The recruiting rankings have indeed shot up under Willie Taggart, but they don't seem to be translating on the field. And I've seen nothing to indicate that's going to change anytime soon.
USF is going in the right direction in so many other sports: we're very excited about Orlando Antigua, Mark Kingston has been a tremendous shot in the arm for USF Baseball, and everything points to Jose Fernandez having the highest ranked USF team ever in 2015-16. The way fans are interacted with and students are treated and marketed to has improved dramatically. There is a buzz around the program that has been missing for years and years, and it's finally fun to write this blog again because there is so much hope for the future.
But football will always be our most important sport. It is the rising tide that lifts all boats, or runs them aground when it fails. Mark Harlan won't let USF fail at football in the long term, but he gets a pass for the upcoming season. I believe his hands are tied because of the financial pressures of the department, and because firing a coach after two seasons that inherited a galling dearth of talent would show a level of instability that sends the wrong signal to any future potential coaches.
I will be called a hater by those close to the program. But we've been right a helluva lot more than we've been wrong around here, and as a fact-based human I don't see a thing that gives me any hope that we'll see a turnaround this year.
Believe me: I really, really, really hope I'm wrong.