EDITOR’S NOTE: Tre Griffin transferred to USF from the Naval Academy and played for the Bulls from 2012-2014. He appeared in 36 games at safety and on special teams and earned a place on the 2012 Big East All-Academic Team.
So I was scrolling aimlessly through my Twitter timeline the other day when I happened upon this little gem:
My immediate reaction was to be absolutely perplexed by the number of replies to this tweet who chose to use this as another opportunity to laud the insurmountable greatness of Michael Jordan and the superiority of teams and defenses of the 90s, as opposed to forming a logical argument supporting why they think one team would win over the other.
What I realized, though, is that this is simply a classic case of sports nostalgia. When a team or a player means a lot to people, and had a profound effect on their lives, they tend to be somewhat biased, if not wholly unreasonable, when it comes to determining just how good that team or player really was. As a Miami native, I have these types of "fuzzy" feelings about the 2001 Canes football team. I was a huge fan of The U growing up, and I will argue with anyone that that team is the greatest in the history of college football. I don't even feel the need to explain why, they're just the GOAT.
So this got me to thinking about USF Football and the team that is held in this regard by Bulls fans everywhere. I am obviously talking about the 2007 team. The accomplishments of that team have been well documented over the years, and they truly put the program on the national map.
Also this happened.
In my four years as a USF football player, I never experienced anything close to the absolute pandemonium in Ray Jay that night. That team is the pride and joy of the program, and considering USF has still yet to win a conference championship, rightfully so. However, this past year’s team has challenged their legacy, and I’m here to issue my take on who would win if the two teams faced off. It’s the hot take you always needed but never knew. Let’s do it.
Making the Case
The Bulls offense carried the momentum of their late-season surge in 2015 straight into the 2016 season, and it was an absolute thing of beauty to behold. They were the physical embodiment of lightning in a bottle. If you turned your head away from the game at any point when this unit was on the field last season, it was fairly likely you would miss a huge play, probably a touchdown. They ranked in the to -5 in the nation in scoring offense and rushing yards per game (T-1st in yards per attempt), and just outside the top 10 at 11th in total yards per game. And they extended their nation-leading streak of games scoring at least 30 points to 17 games, hitting at least 35 in every game but one. That level of offensive consistency, regardless of the opponent, was the most impressive attribute of this team.
I’d also like to add that last year’s team took good care of the football, with only 17 total turnovers and eight interceptions. Very impressive for a vertical passing game like the one USF unleashed when it wasn’t running all over folks.
Unfortunately, the defense was even more affected by the departure of defensive coordinator Tom Allen than I predicted they would be. They were particularly vulnerable against the run, ranking 84th in the nation with 196 yards surrendered per game. In the passing game, the defense gave up 285 yards per game. This is not good by any stretch, but I would like to point out that the Bulls ranked sixth in the nation in opponent pass attempts per game, a natural result of being in the lead for the majority of the season. The defense gave up a lot of yardage, but they were also an opportunistic group, ranking in the top 15 in takeaways. Their affinity for forcing mistakes manifested in some huge moments throughout the season. This one was a personal favorite of mine.
Scoring touchdowns is fun.
Led by USF campus treasures Matt Grothe and Ben Moffitt, as well as future NFL defenders George Selvie, Nate Allen, Mike Jenkins, and Trae Williams, the 2007 group accomplished many ridiculous things they were never supposed to. In their 11th season ever playing football, USF beat #17 Auburn and #5 West Virginia and blasted C. 64-12 on their way to a #2 ranking. A city that had barely had college football for a decade now had a team that would be playing in a national title if they won out. And for a moment Tampa was a college football town. Imagine that. Ultimately, of course, this was not to be, but what that team did made USF a relevant entity in college football.
Beyond the hype, they were pretty cagey at football too. The base 4-3 defense featured first-team All-American Selvie at end, savvy veteran Moffitt in the middle, and two lockdown corners, Jenkins and Williams, on the outside. Sophomore Nate Allen also had his breakout season at safety. The defense was ranked in the top 30 in both rushing yards and total yards surrendered, and the top 35 in passing yards. They were ultra aggressive with sure tacklers all over the field, and they limited the vaunted West Virginia offense, who finished 3rd in the nation in rushing yards per game, to 13 points and 3.9 yards per carry. They also were a takeaway machine, leading the nation with 42. This was huge in the win against Auburn, where solid defense and five forced turnovers kept the Bulls in a game in which the offense struggled mightily.
That offense was led by sophomore Matt Grothe. On the legs of Grothe and halfbacks Ben Williams and Mike Ford, these Bulls ran for 185 yards per game, good for 33rd in the nation. Grothe threw for nearly 2,700 yards on the season, throwing 14 scores and running for 10 more. They had explosive performances against UCF, Syracuse, Louisville, and Pitt, and ended the season nearly cracking the top 20 in scoring offense with 34.7 points per contest.
The offense however, was not without its flaws. They were prone to mistakes, turning the ball over 33 times on the season, and Grothe matched his touchdown total with 14 interceptions. This unit straight up sputtered for stretches in games throughout the season. This was most apparent during their biggest wins against West Virginia and Auburn, needing outstanding defensive play and a +5 turnover margin to make it to overtime against Auburn. The offense turned into the Matt Grothe show at times, with him running around trying to make plays, eerily similar to the USF offenses piloted by his successor BJ Daniels. And in both cases, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Most of the time offense was granted mulligans by their stingy defense awarding them with a new possession, but in the few games where the defense wasn’t as sharp, the Bulls had a difficult time competing, dropping three out of four games where they gave up 30+ points.
Let’s face it, the most dominant unit on either of these teams was the 2016 USF offense. The numbers don’t lie. This team turned every game into a track meet, and could not be stopped by anyone, even in losses. FSU had the most success against the USF offense, and they still gave up 35 points.
USF’s 2007 defense was the best in school history, with several future NFL players on the roster. At times they completely shut teams down. However, they did struggle in a few games during the season, most notably against Oregon in the Sun Bowl. This was the genesis of the rise of Chip Kelly, when Oregon was implementing the spread run offense that made him a household name, and that so many teams have modified and taken on as their own. One of those teams was none other than the 2016 USF Bulls. Does this play look somewhat familiar?
Or this one?
Even though that pass was not completed, the receiver was wide open in the end zone. This play was a staple of the Gulf Coast Offense last year. Oregon found success spreading the USF defense thin in order to run at them, as well as using tempo and creative formations to keep them off balanced and negate the aggressive, downhill play that made them so great.
In the end, Jonathan Stewart finished with 253 yards on a ridiculous 11 yards per carry. Dennis Dixon had been out for half the season with a knee injury after stirring up Heisman talk during his short run, so Oregon didn’t even have the dynamic running threat at quarterback for the Bulls to contend with.
Guess who does though?
I know what many of you are probably thinking. How would last year’s defense stop Grothe and the gang when they’re on offense? My answer, of course, is they wouldn’t need to. Or at least they wouldn’t need to shut them down. The defense seemed to rely heavily on a “bend but don’t break” strategy, and though they did break several times, they were no stranger to the clutch takeaway, as I mentioned earlier. Add this to the 2007 team’s propensity for giving the ball away, and their relative lack of big play ability, and you get lengthy drives that are more likely to end in turnovers, especially if that offense finds itself playing from behind.
In the case of both the 1996 Chicago Bulls and the 2007 USF Bulls, they would face offensive firepower they had never experienced before. Q, Marlon, Rodney, D’Ernest and friends were KD, Steph, Dray and Klay, spreading the ball around and striking from long range with frequency and precision. Before you know it, you’re down by 30. I don’t actually think either team would get blown out, I just don’t think the 2007 team would quite be able to keep up offensively. Pass the sticks, B.
37-31 New Bulls
Also, completely unrelated and strictly for your viewing pleasure, here is a GIF of SUPER BOWL CHAMPION B.J. Daniels hurling an unsuspecting Florida A&M linebacker like a shotput.