The following chart shows the results of the ten games that FCS top 25 teams played against FBS teams this weekend:
|#5 Northern Iowa
|#8 South Dakota State
|#9 William & Mary
|#14 Eastern Washington
|#18 Northern Arizona
|#22 New Hampshire
|San Diego State
The FCS Top 25-ers went 3-7, with a fourth team, South Dakota State, scaring the living daylights out of 13th-ranked TCU. In fact, USF's 36-point win over Towson was the biggest margin of victory of the bunch. When you look at it like that, it's difficult to get overly critical of USF's pretty cushy win over a team that could very well wind up an FCS national title contender.
Here's the rub, though: USF really didn't play that well on Saturday night. They were uncharacteristically inefficient on the ground in the first half (just a 42% success rate on running plays before finding their footing a bit in the third quarter), the offensive playcalling was choppy and at times bizarre (a whole lot of emphasis on forcing the ball down the seam instead of getting it to the Bulls' superior athletes in the flat), and footballs were errantly flying out of Quinton Flowers' right hand like a water hose with a thumb over it. And that's just the offense!
The only one of these issues that strikes me as legitimately concerning is the last one, because it's the only one of the bunch that we've seen flare up before and for which we haven't found a permanent solution. The running game was back on track by the third quarter, Willie Taggart and company were calling sublime offensive games towards the end of last season... but Quinton Flowers' accuracy issues may not have been fixed in an offseason's worth of practice.
This is really not meant as a critique of Flowers, who is a remarkable player and might be the most exciting and easy-to-root-for USF Bull ever. His struggles throwing the ball will likely not hurt USF against 75% of their schedule, just as it didn't last year. If you expect USF to win 75% of their games this year (I'll help you with the math; that's 9-3), then their passing game will be just fine as is. If you, like me, think USF has potential to play at a top 25 level this season, then they need to do better. You can cruise through Temple, Cincinnati, and UCF with great athletes, an incredible run game and timely deep passes, but eventually you're going to play a Florida State or Western Kentucky that requires you to move the ball through the air consistently. USF couldn't do that last year, so they finished a hair short of a conference title. Can they do it this year?
In fairness, this was the first game of the season. Flowers and company will have a lot more opportunities to show that they're an AAC-title level team, and I'm reasonably confident that they can do so. And hey-- you could certainly argue that USF playing an average game and still having the sheer talent to blow out a non-cupcake by five touchdowns is a very good thing. I would agree with that, as long as the Bulls can prove that this was an average game, and not the status quo.
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Stray observations from Taking Care of Business:
- I didn't mean to pick on Quinton Flowers-- USF had plenty of other issues beyond his accuracy concerns. The defense, as we feared might happen, didn't get nearly enough of a pass rush, particularly from the front four. In Eric Lee, Shawn Hill, and Jamie Byrd, the Bulls had three dependable edge rushers in 2015; after Game One of 2016, they don't appear close to filling that void.
- Also... yeah, special teams could be an issue. I'm not going to make any sweeping statements on 241-pound punting wonder Jonathan Hernandez after one game, and we didn't get to see Emilio Nadelman try any field goals, but the Bulls' kickoff unit is terrifying. I understand that they don't have anyone with the leg to boot the ball through the end zone, but you need to do the second best thing in that scenario and execute a coffin-corner kick inside the ten (at the very least!), and cover it well. USF was hitting bloopers to the 15 and 20. That's undoubtedly going to cost them if it continues.
- I know it wasn't exactly pretty, but it was still pretty thrilling seeing USF thrash a team on pure talent advantage, wasn't it? Towson had absolutely no answer for the speed of USF's skill position players. Specific highlights: Darius Tice did a tremendous job on the swing pass that he took for a touchdown, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling looked amazing in all aspects of the game, from his blocking to the long touchdown pass he caught from Flowers.
- I was pleasantly surprised with the USF defensive front bottling up a powerful Towson rushing attack to the tune of just 2.6 yards per carry. On the whole, I really think the defense played brilliantly. A lot of fans were quick to point fingers at the secondary for a couple big Tigers passes, but most of Morgan Mahalak's success through the air was due to the Bulls getting little pressure on the quarterback. If the Bulls can find pass rushers, I think their defense could be as good as-- if not better than-- the 2015 version.
- Nigel Harris! After an uneventful 2015 season marred by an early suspension, the senior linebacker had a wonderful debut in 2016, totaling 6 tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack and a fantastic interception that he nearly returned for six. Having Harris playing to the best of his potential would be a huge boost for the defense.
- Brett Kean! Admittedly, it was against a worn-out FCS defense, but he threw the ball with confidence and accuracy and looked really smooth in his first ever college action. Hopefully we'll get to see more of him in garbage time situations this season.
- Marlon Mack. It's easy to forget with two talented running backs behind him and Flowers being an absolutely electrifying player, but Mack is far and away the best player on this offense. Without Mack's NFL-level vision and speed, the USF offenses ceases to be remarkable and settles around "pretty darn good." All of this said, USF absolutely cannot rush him back when he's dealing with a head injury. He's listed as questionable for the NIU game now, but if he has to sit out until conference play starts, so be it. For both his sake and USF's, you've got to be 110% sure he's ready to go before putting him back in a game.
- If I sound overly critical of a 36-point win here, it's only because I'm holding USF to the Uncle Ben standard: with great talent comes great responsibility. The Bulls are playing pretty great football right now, and it's so much fun to watch them play. They can do even better. Buckle up, because these next three opponents should provide a much harder test.