A familiar opponent comes to town for the seventh game of 2016, bound to give USF some trouble. The most recent UConn games have been nailbiters, but the Bulls have found ways to win the last four meetings. The average margin of victory for the last nine meetings has been less than five points. USF's eight-point win last year was the biggest in the series since 2006.
Date: Saturday, October 15 (time TBD)
Head Coach: Bob Diaco (8-17 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Frank Verducci
Defensive Coordinator: Anthony Poindexter
All Time Series: USF has an 8-5 lead in a series that dates back to 2000. The Huskies are tied with Cincinnati as USF's most frequent football opponent. The Bulls are 5-1 at home in the series.
Last year, the Bulls traveled to UConn midway through the season, brimming with confidence after the 45-21 win over Syracuse the week before. They found themselves trailing at halftime, having turned the ball over twice. Still, they found a way to slice through UConn's tough defense, with a little help from fourth-string quarterback D'Ernest Johnson.
UConn finds itself at a bit of a crossroads in 2016. The Huskies got rid of head coach Paul Pasqualoni after the team lost the first four games of 2013, and have been trying to turn the program around ever since.
Incidentally, the first game UConn played without Pasqualoni in 2013 was Willie Taggart's second win as USF coach. That game was coached by T.J. Weist, who finished out the season as interim coach of the Huskies. Weist is now USF's co-offensive coordinator.
In 2014, UConn started out with Bob Diaco at the helm and won only two games, but last season they managed to get to six wins and a spot in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Winning six games isn't easy when you only average 17 points per game, but the Huskies managed to do it. They won all the games they were supposed to win, against Villanova, Army, UCF, East Carolina, and Tulane, before pulling a 20-17 upset over #19 Houston in game eleven.
Diaco's turnaround has depended on the success of the Husky defense, which has been spectacular, but great defense can only carry a team so far. UConn's offense has been one of the country's worst for the last two years, despite being given chance after chance to score points.
For an example of their ineptitude, see their game at Tulane last year. The offense put together only one sustained drive, which ended in a blocked field goal. They started in Tulane territory once, proceeding to move four yards backward and punt. They then started on their own 43, and went three-and-out, before starting on their own 40, committing a personal foul, and punting after four plays. At the end of the game, they started on their own 37 and punted after seven plays.
And that was a game they won! Near the end of the first quarter, Jamar Summers got a pick-six, and that single defensive touchdown held up for a winning score of 7-3.
The Huskies can't keep relying on defense to carry them like that. This will be Diaco's third year with the team, and the team needs to improve in leaps and bounds if they want to escape mediocrity.
It's hard to ignore UConn's hideous offense. Last season, they were 114th in offensive S&P+, 107th in offensive FEI, 121st in points per game, and 123rd in yards per game.
The only real bright spot on offense is running back Arkeel Newsome. Between rushing and receiving, he's good for about 100 yards per game. Noel Thomas, the team's leading receiver, averaged 13+ yards per catch last year but only scored three touchdowns. In contrast, USF's Rodney Adams scored three touchdowns against UConn alone.
Bryant Shirreffs is back at quarterback for his junior year as the unequivocal starter, according to Diaco. Shirreffs is a 60% passer, and isn't terrible on his feet. Shirreffs warmed the bench in 2013 at NC State, and sat out 2014 as a transfer, so 2015 was his first real football experience since high school. With an improved offensive line, he'll probably perform a lot better in 2016.
Ryan Crozier will be a big part of that O-line improvement. He didn't play in 2015 due to injury, but now he's back and already being touted as one of the best centers in the country. The rest of the line is upperclassmen with decent amount of experience.
As former Notre Dame defensive coordinator, Diaco is tuned in to his team's defense and has made sure that they perform at a high level. Last season, UConn held #22 Missouri to seven offensive points and #19 Houston to 17. Their defensive S&P+ was 36th in the nation, and their FEI was 32nd. They held their opponents to 355 yards and 20 points per game, and created two turnovers per game.
Middle linebacker Junior Joseph returns for his junior year, now with a lot of experience under his belt. He was last year's second-leading tackler, and anchor of the linebacking corps. Obi Melifonwu, the leader of the secondary, is back for his senior year, along with cornerback Jamar Summers, who had eight interceptions last season.
These guys have been great, and they'll probably be even better this year.
UConn's early schedule includes trips to Houston and Navy, and visits by Syracuse, Virginia, and Cincinnati. By the time they get to Tampa, 3-3 might be their best-case scenario. But with late-season matchups against UCF, ECU and Tulane, their bowl hopes will be very much alive. If they can steal one from USF, they can reasonably get to seven or eight regular season wins, and that's exactly what their goal will be.
The Husky defense can choke even the most dynamic offenses, as they did last year against Houston. This isn't going to be a cakewalk for the Bulls. UConn will try to slow things down, run the ball a lot, and control the clock. With the defense they have, it won't be easy to keep drives going.
UConn has several great players, especially on defense, but the team still needs to develop. The Bulls did that developing last year. 2015 was about demonstrating the potential that the team had. 2016 will be about capitalizing on opportunities, like the opportunity to win the division and maybe even the conference. The season may work out differently, but right now it's really hard to imagine USF losing at home to UConn.