Right after Clemson won the national championship, SB Nation’s Jason Kirk released his Hilariously Early 2017 College Football Predictions where he tabbed USF to grab the Group of Five New Year’s Six slot in the Peach Bowl against defending national champion Clemson.
That sounds like a boatload of fun, and I’m totally here for that. Hooray!
Projections like these are just offseason exercises that will change 58 times because who the hell knows what will happen eleven months from now. But I found this projection particularly intriguing because for both programs, it would be a weird full-circle moment from six years ago when they met in each other in the 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl. An otherwise meaningless bowl game on New Year’s Eve in Charlotte turn out to serve as a pivot point for the two schools. Let’s look back.
2010 marked the first year of the “Holtz New Era” at USF (and coincidentally my freshman year at the school). After a 3-3 start, Holtz’s Bulls would wind up at 7-5, finishing the year with a Bobby Eveld-led victory over Miami that got Randy Shannon fired and yet another weird UConn game where the Huskies kicked a late field goal to send themselves to the Fiesta Bowl. With starting quarterback B.J. Daniels set to return for the bowl game, USF needed a strong showing to end their season on a positive note.
On the flip side, Clemson’s season was a major disappointment. After making the ACC Championship Game the year before, the Tigers’ season spun downward after losing to eventual national champion Auburn in week three. Despite having Da’Quan Bowers, who at the time was projected as a top-three pick in the NFL Draft, they would barely eke out bowl eligibility late in the year before getting wrecked at home by Steve Spurrier and archrival South Carolina to end the season. A trip to Charlotte in December was not where they expected nor wanted to be.
In front of a sparse Bank of America Stadium crowd on New Year’s Eve, USF defeated Clemson 31-26. The Bulls held an 18-point lead late into the fourth until two late Tiger touchdowns set up an unnecessarily exciting finish.
Having been a bit turnover-prone and battling injuries in his first year in Holtz’s offense, this was the exact game USF fans and students like myself wanted to see from Daniels to cap the season. The Tallahassee native completed 20 for 27 passes for 189 yards, throwing for two scores and adding another on the ground. It left us thinking about what he could do for the Bulls’ offense in the future if he consistently delivered like that.
On the Clemson side, the loss dropped them to 6-7, their first losing season since 1998. It left many questioning if head coach Dabo Swinney, finishing his second full year in charge, was still the right guy to lead the program.
The Tigers did get a glimpse into the future when redshirt freshman QB “Swag Reasons” Tajh Boyd took over for an injured Kyle Parker. But the game served as a low point for a fan base that practically no-showed a bowl just two and a half hours up the road from Death Valley.
As Dabo said after the game, "I don't blame the fans one bit for being ticked off. They should be ticked off. I'm going to do everything I can to make us better."
Before last year’s national championship game, Ryan Kantor of SB Nation’s Clemson blog Shakin in the Southland wrote about what a national title would mean for Clemson. In it, he posted a picture he had taken in the half empty stands of Bank of America Stadium on that fateful New Year’s Eve and offered his perspective as an outgoing Clemson student that year.
“It was the 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl, a meaningless bowl against USF in Charlotte. I couldn't stand my last game as a student being a home loss to South Carolina, so we trekked up to Charlotte only to see them lose 26-31.”
“As we headed home, it felt much more like Clemson on the descent, than Clemson bottoming out. Nobody would have believed we would win the ACC the following season, and my original stance that we should have hired Tommy Tuberville was looking pretty smart. Maybe the only bright spot was that the new QB (Boyd) who came in for Kyle Parker at least looked decent."
“While these negative memories aren't the most fun, I find that "the bitter makes the sweet sweeter..."
Those bitter moments stemming from the 2010 bowl game served as the catalyst for Clemson to make some fateful changes.
Offensive coordinator Billy Napier was axed just days after the game. He was replaced with a promising but obscure coach from Tulsa named Chad Morris, who was only a year removed from guiding Austin’s Lake Travis High School to a Texas high school state title. In Morris’s first year putting together the Clemson offense, the Tigers won the ACC championship and played in the Orange Bowl, only to get firebombed 70-33 by West Virginia. After that debacle, Dabo made another coaching upgrade, replacing defensive coordinator Kevin Steele with longtime Oklahoma assistant coach Brent Venables.
These fantastic coaching moves, combined with major facilities upgrades and improved recruiting, got the Tigers on the upswing. While some of these things would have happened anyway (Clemson’s 2011 recruiting class was loaded, headlined by Sammy Watkins), you can see how the loss in Charlotte kickstarted the program we see today, culminating in Deshaun Watson hitting Hunter Renfrow at literally the last second to win a national title last Monday.
If Ryan Kantor’s perspective leaving the Meineke Car Care Bowl as an outgoing senior was one of disappointment, then my perspective as a USF freshman was of optimism and excitement for the future.
The Bulls finished 8-5 with a rising head coach who had secured a bowl win in his first season. The team knocked off another big-name ACC opponent, their sixth win over that conference in five years. The quarterback who struggled at points throughout the season looked pretty good against a stout Clemson defense. We were poised to open the following season at Notre Dame in a game that totally wouldn’t be bizarre and weird. Leaving that bowl game, things were definitely looking up for the eternal “sleeping giant” team of the Big East.
Even ESPN commentator Brock Huard offered this snippet at the end of the game:
“If they can keep playing at this level, I think Skip Holtz can elevate this program to be perennial Big East contenders.”
There’s no way this thing could go off the rails, right? Hahahahahahaha, WRONG.
If you’ve followed this website throughout the years, you don’t need us to tell you how the program spiraled downward from that point forward under Holtz, leaving a smoldering mess that Willie Taggart would have to completely overhaul and rebuild. Oh yeah, and the Big East as we knew it collapsed, leaving USF stranded in the aftermath of conference realignment.
It would be five years before the Bulls would return to a bowl game. It took awhile for Taggart’s rebuild to pay off, but USF turned it around suddenly in 2015. Taggart’s excellent recruiting job and retooling the USF offense into the most explosive unit in the country brought the program back into the top 25 in 2016. When he left for Oregon last month and USF replaced him with Charlie Strong, the table was set for the Bulls to do even more damage in 2017.
Bringing USF and Clemson back together at the end of next season would be a opportunity to reflect on how the 2010s have turned out for both teams. The trajectories of both programs have changed (and in USF’s case, changed back) since 2010 - Clemson skyrocketing to national champions, while USF sunk all the way to the bottom, only to resurface as an 11-win offensive juggernaut.
“Way too early” predictions are way too early for a reason, and they almost never come to pass. But considering the circumstances, this one is interesting enough to make you hope that it actually does materialize.