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SMU Aftermath: The Edge of Glory

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Bask in it.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Towards the beginning of the season, it’s easy to have complaints about almost anything and to find cracks in the most solid of performances. To wit: it was not difficult to see that despite USF’s 45-20 blowout win against Syracuse, falling behind 17-0 to the Fighting Eric Dungeys and arm tackling miscellaneous Syracuse running backs seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage were representative of genuine issues that might rear their heads later in the season. Unsurprisingly, Dalvin Cook ate the Bulls’ defense for lunch the next week. In evaluating college football teams— or any sport, really— it’s always more important to look at the process rather than the result.

I say this now, and this is one of the few times in my life I will ever say this: at this stage of this season, you may as well curl up process into a ball and shoot it into a trash can on an ill-advised one-footed fadeaway like Victor Rudd. It really doesn’t matter how USF wins right now; it just matters that they win.

This is a good thing, because the last two weeks have been far from pretty (of course, literally nothing will be pretty when your defense has the tackling acumen of eleven bowling pins, but... dead horse, meet stick). Still, USF emerged from two tricky road trips with two exciting wins, and has navigated a perilous stretch of Temple, Navy, Memphis, and SMU at 3-1. That’s pretty impressive, and I’ve yet to mention the fact that USF is now 9-2— their best record in the BCS era-onwards— and has two chances to hit ten wins for the first time in school history. They have the second-best offense in the country, per S&P+. Their quarterback is a fringe All-America candidate, their running back could be a future second or third round draft pick, and their backup running back is the most highly recruited of the bunch. And in case you forgot, all three are likely coming back next season.

These are all objectively fantastic things. There are a thousand things about USF that could be picked apart right now (like their defense! It is bad. Have I mentioned that?), but at this point in the season, you’ve got what you’ve got. What USF has got is good enough to win ten games, and, in the event of divine intervention from a malicious, owl-hating deity, could still win a division title. They could even crack the Top 25 for the first time in five years, although given the collective unpredictability of the polls lately, I’m not going to make any assumptions on this front.

This brings me to the large, ugly, 2,000-ton elephant in the room: USF is probably not going to win the AAC East. This is a pretty tough pill to swallow, especially considering that a 7-1 record in conference will bring home a title nearly 100% of the time. There were two Top 25-caliber teams in the East division this season, and USF had the misfortune of having to play the other one on the road. Last year USF had a legitimate beef, having defeated Temple and fallen victim to uneven scheduling, but this year they just came out on the wrong end of a one-game playoff. I won’t pretend it’s not a sizable gut punch, particularly when many of us set the barometer for success this season at a division title, but given a victory in USF’s final game (no guarantees here; UCF is pretty good), this season will have been an unprecedented success. The Bulls are standing firmly on the edge of glory right now, just one win away from heights that this program has never before reached. It’s a beautiful, beautiful feeling, and finishing second place to an entirely worthy team doesn’t take away from that.

If I did have bones to pick about Saturday’s game, they would be the following bones:

  • USF’s offense is amazing, obviously, and still managed to put up 35 points, but they were well off their usual pace. SMU did a really good job in the trenches and never let the Bulls get into much of a rhythm running the ball. It says a lot about the quality of USF’s athletes that the Bulls were still able to put up 278 yards on the ground. UCF has a legitimate top-25 defense, though, so the line needs to play much better next week. If the USF defense hadn’t made a few key stops— I’ll stop short of saying “played well”— the Bulls would’ve lost this game.
  • I wasn’t thrilled with the playcalling, though this likely had a lot of do with the fact that SMU was winning the battle in the trenches. Against Memphis, USF rarely threw the ball more than 10 yards in the air and rarely had to— they were entirely effective moving the ball on the ground and through bubble screens. This week the offensive pendulum swung back in the opposite direction: USF looked deep early and often, and while Quinton Flowers has blossomed into an amazing, amazing quarterback, this still isn’t his forte. Still, even the threat of Rodney Adams and Marlon Mack on bubble screens was haunting SMU— on both of the long touchdown passes to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Tyre McCants, a defensive back bit on a fake screen, leaving their receiver open for an easy six points.
  • The more flagrant issue with playcalling was Willie Taggart’s insistence on playing it conservative in SMU territory. With an offense that regularly averages over eight yards per play and six yards per carry and a defense that can’t stop a nosebleed, there’s almost never a situation in which USF shouldn’t be going for it on fourth down in enemy territory. Admittedly, Taggart has been doing a better job with this as of late; he didn’t even think about punting on the first-quarter 4th and 1, and Marlon Mack rewarded his trust by taking a carry to the house.
  • This defense is still a total mess, but they made just enough stops to win the game. This is all the Bulls need from their defense— force a couple punts and perhaps a turnover, and the game is very likely won. I think Raymond Woodie is grasping this a little bit more, and has adjusted his playcalling accordingly, as the Bulls have been much more aggressive in their blitz packages in recent games. As for that last-minute stop on 4th and 1... that was beautiful. No bizarre playcalling from the opponent, no blown pass interference calls in the end zone, just a pure, simple, man-on-man victory in the trenches.
  • I’m just going to leave this here.