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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 49: South Florida

Going, going, gone. Jim Leavitt jumped the fence, with Skip Holtz stepping into the fold.

The scowl is so yesterday. The visor, however, is still cool. Say hello to today’s media darling, Skip Holtz, who inherited his father’s friendly demeanor, if not his resume. Not that Holtz is unprepared: South Florida landed a consistent winner, albeit one accustomed to college football’s lower levels. And this might come as a surprise to the U.S.F. fan base, but Holtz actually looks like — gasp — he’s having fun out there. Could it be?

Conference
Big East

Location
Tampa, Fla.

Nickname
Bulls

Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 40

2009 record
(8-5, 3-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 51

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Stony Brook
  • Sept. 11
    at Florida
  • Sept. 25
    Western Kentucky
  • Oct. 2
    Florida Atlantic
  • Oct. 9
    Syracuse
  • Oct. 14
    at West Virginia
  • Oct. 2
    at Cincinnati
  • Nov. 3
    Rutgers
  • Nov. 13
    at Louisville
  • Nov. 20
    Pittsburgh
  • Nov. 27
    at Miami (Fla.)
  • Dec. 4
    Connecticut

Last year’s prediction

Despite needing solid performances from unproven players, the Bulls are too talented to win fewer than seven games. The key will be avoiding the second-half lull that has characterized the Bulls in each of the last two seasons. As I said in the Pittsburgh preview, I believe U.S.F. is one of five teams that have a strong claim to being the best this conference has to offer; as with the Panthers, I wouldn’t be surprised if U.S.F. won the Big East or if the team finished fifth. I don’t believe this squad will win the Big East, but it has a shot. It will all come down to how well it plays from Oct. 15 to Nov. 12.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Yet again, the Bulls folded like a deck of cards down the stretch. Combine another poor finish with a troubling incident involving one of his players, and you know why Jim Leavitt is no longer leading the program. Among the late-season lowlights: woeful performances against Big East brethren Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Rutgers; a disappointing loss to in-state big brother Miami; and the aforementioned locker room drama. It will be odd not to see Leavitt, the only coach in program history, stalking the sidelines. Yet there’s little question that time had come to make a change, especially given the administration’s belief that U.S.F. is not far from turning a corner. All Holtz needs to do, really, is make this team more consistent: the Bulls were capable offensively, occasionally stout defensively, but rarely at the same time.

High point Yet again, a fast start. The Bulls were 5-0 through Oct. 3, with a 17-7 win over Florida State providing the highlight of the season. South Florida fans also hoped the program-building win would provide the team with the confidence needed to finish the season on a high note, not with a whimper.

Low point Four one-sided losses in its next six games. U.S.F. couldn’t stay within 17 points of Cincinnati, West Virginia, Rutgers and Miami, with those final two losses coming by the combined final score of 62-10.

Tidbit Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Supposedly, Jim Leavitt-coached South Florida teams didn’t finish strong. Is this true? The numbers tell the tale. From 2005 – when U.S.F. joined the Big East – through 2009, South Florida went a combined 23-7 from the first game of the season through Oct. 15. From Oct. 16 through the end of the season, the Bulls went 17-16. The discrepancy has been especially clear over the last three seasons. Since 2007, the Bulls have combined to start 16-2 and finish 9-11.

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 S Nate Allen (Philadelphia), P Delbert Alvarado (Dallas), OT Marc Dile (Tampa Bay), CB Mike Jenkins (Dallas), WR Taurus Johnson (Miami), LB Tyrone McKenzie (New England), LB Kawika Mitchell (Buffalo), WR Carlton Mitchell (Cleveland), CB Jerome Murphy (St. Louis), LB Stephen Nicholas (Atlanta), DE Jason Pierre-Paul (New York Giants), DE George Selvie (St. Louis), CB Trae Williams (Pittsburgh), LB Kion Williams (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

Important Papal bulls
1.  Unam Sanctam. Declared Church as the only way to salvation.
2. Inter gravissimas. Established the Gregorian calendar.
3. Decet Romanum Ponticifem. Excommunicated Martin Luther.
4. In Nomine Domini. Stated only bishops can elect the Pope.
5. Regnas in Excelsis. Declared Elizabeth I of England a heretic.

Coaching

Skip Holtz (Notre Dame ‘86), entering his first season at South Florida. Holtz’s media-friendly personality will serve as a welcome antidote to Leavitt’s often reckless behavior, though Holtz’s defense-first philosophy is similar to his predecessor’s. He arrives in Tampa after leading East Carolina to back-to-back Conference USA championships, as well as four consecutive bowl trips. His stature grew with each successive season at E.C.U., in direct correlation with his team’s win total: 3-20 from 2003-4, the Pirates won five games in 2005, seven in 2006, eight in 2007 and nine games in each of the last two seasons. In all, Holtz compiled a 37-27 record over five years at East Carolina. He was hired following five years as the assistant head coach under his father Lou at South Carolina, though he had previous head coaching experience at Connecticut from 1994-98 (33-23 record). In his final season, Holtz lead the Huskies to a 10-3 record and a final ranking in the F.C.S. Top 25. It is not hard to imagine why Holtz had a degree of success with E.C.U.; in addition to working under his father with Gamecocks and at Notre Dame (1990-93), Holtz coached under Bobby Bowden at Florida State (1987-88) and Earle Bruce at Colorado State (1989), compiling a career mark of 67-15-2 as an assistant. Still relatively young at 46, Holtz’s decision to accept the U.S.F. position came as a surprise to some who felt he could have landed a job at a more historically successful program. However, Holtz sees in South Florida the same factors that attracted a Bobby Bowden to Florida State or Howard Schnellenberger to Miami: a fertile recruiting base, the opportunity for massive growth and the potential to be the defining figure in the history of the program. If Jim Leavitt laid the groundwork for future success, it becomes Holtz’s job to get South Florida off the lower levels of the Big East and into the penthouse.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Mark Snyder is not a great head coach, no. His five-year tenure at Marshall was, to put it lightly, a disappointment. Yet Snyder is a solid defensive coordinator, a position he once held at Ohio State before taking over at his alma mater. He’s one of six new assistants on the U.S.F. staff, joining Todd Fitch (offensive coordinator and running backs coach), Pete Vaas (quarterbacks), Steve Shankweiler (offensive line),  Rick Smith (assistant head coach and defensive backs) and Vernon Hargreaves (special teams). Fitch was Holtz’s coordinator over his final three seasons at East Carolina.

Players to watch

It’s the B.J. Daniels show on offense. The show is unscripted, of course, and like all ad-libbed programs has its moments of genius to go with its fair share of low notes. If his redshirt freshman campaign is any indication, the future is bright. Daniels was inserted into the starting lineup three games into the year, replacing the injured starter Matt Grothe, and in his first start led the Bulls past favored Florida State in muddy Tallahassee. It wasn’t all smiles for the then-freshman, of course, as Daniels was not exactly ready to excel as a passer. He wasn’t terrible, however, merely typically inconsistent; he made up for any of those defaults with a team-leading 772 yards rushing and 9 scores, giving him 23 touchdowns altogether. Imagine Grothe, with a better arm and even better physical ability: there’s Daniels. His off-season shoulder surgery gives me some pause, but he should be back to full health by September.

A year ago at this time, South Florida faced the tough task of replacing four starters on its offensive line. One year later, the offensive line is the deepest, most experienced unit on the team. Senior Jacob Sims is a three-year starter, though he’s alternated spots throughout his career. He’ll be asked to step in full-time at right tackle, with senior Jamar Bass, a former JUCO transfer, manning the weak side. Sampson Genus is back for a second year at center, with juniors Jeremiah Warren and Chaz Hine entered the summer leading the way at left and right guard, respectively.

Senior A.J. Love’s A.C.L. tear, an injury that could cost him the 2010 season, is a deadly blow to the South Florida receiver corps. Love was expected to play an even larger role as a senior, particularly with the departure of leading receiver Carlton Mitchell. What will the Bulls do without their top deep threat? Sophomore Sterling Griffin could play that role: he made 14 receptions for 265 yards last fall, an 18.9 yards per catch average. South Florida will also need senior Dontavia Bogan to step up his game beyond the 22-catch, 205-yards totals he posted ago. This thin receiver corps will be augmented by Holtz’s decision to move quarterback Evan Landi — at least part-time — and running back Lindsay Lamar to the position.

On paper, the challenge is daunting: replace ends George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul, two of the more productive pass-rushers in the country. In reality, the Bulls will be just fine. Not to say the new starters, likely seniors David Bedford and Craig Marshall, will single-handedly duplicate the lost production. The Bulls have depth, however, touting as many as six ends capable of earning significant action. Those additional ends? Juniors Patrick Hampton and Claude Davis are certainly in the mix, and redshirt freshmen Ryne Giddins and Julius Forte earned solid marks during the spring.

Senior Terrell McClain leads the way in the middle. While not small, to put it lightly, McClain has a good enough burst off the line to disrupt plays in the backfield, as indicated by his five tackles for loss in 2009. McClain has prototypical size for an interior lineman; his partner, junior Keith McCaskill, doesn’t. More credit for McCaskill, as the undersized tackle manages to remain a capable run stuffer. Sophomore Cory Grissom is currently running second behind McCaskill on the depth chart. Of course, both might be just keeping a seat warm for incoming freshman Todd Chandler, one of the top two recruits in Holtz’s debut recruiting class.

One starter returns at linebacker: senior Sabbath Joseph returns on the strong side after making 48 tackles (4 for loss) a season ago. Replacing departed starters Kion Wilson — the team leader in tackles — and Chris Robinson won’t be easy. It will help to return an experienced hand like Jacquian Williams on the strong side. Last fall saw Williams, a senior, serve as a leading reserve at outside linebacker. Sophomore Sam Barrington might not be as seasoned as either Joseph or Williams, but he did have a solid debut campaign: 41 tackles in 13 games, including one start in Big East play. While the starting trio looks to be in fine shape, depth at linebacker will be a question mark until the Bulls see what they can get from their group of reserves.

What will we see from the U.S.F. secondary?Here’s what we know: junior Quenton Washington will start at one cornerback spot. Sophomore Kayvon Webster should start on the opposite side, though fellow sophomore Daniel Bryant made a push for the starting role during the spring. As with Chandler up front, incoming freshman Terrance Mitchell brings the ability to make a quick impact in his debut season. The biggest concern, in my mind, is whether the Bulls can replace the play-making ability of star safety Nate Allen. It will be very difficult to do so. In South Florida’s favor: options. Like at strong safety, where the Bulls can go with either junior Jerrell Young or sophomore Jon Lejiste. Senior Mistral Raymond, a four-game starter in 2009, leads the charge at free safety.

Position battles to watch

Running back Two of South Florida’s projected top backs are no longer in the mix: both Mike Ford and Jamar Taylor, former top recruits expected to serve as a potent one-two punch, left the program within a week of each other in mid-March. This is not good, even if neither Ford nor Taylor lived up to their sizable billing. It could have been worse, believe it or not. Senior Mo Plancher landed a sixth year of eligibility from the N.C.A.A.; if he hadn’t, my goodness. As it is, the starting job will by default go to Plancher. Not to say he wouldn’t have won the job outright: he rushed for 581 yards and 5 touchdowns last fall, both totals good for second on the team. The Bulls still face a severe lack of depth at the position. Sophomore Demetris Murray entered the summer behind Plancher on the depth chart, but has yet to earn any significant playing time. In that case, U.S.F. will need JUCO transfer Mike Hayes to make an immediate impact. Hayes was productive on the JUCO ranks — he wouldn’t be here otherwise — but remains an unproven commodity, of course. It would be nice if Hayes’ speed could translate to the F.B.S., as Plancher is a chain-mover, but not a home-run threat. Daniels will do his fair share of work on the ground, but he’ll need help.

Game(s) to watch

One year after topping Florida State, the Bulls will have an opportunity to unseat the other two teams in the Sunshine State’s power trio. It’s important that U.S.F. wins Big East tilts against Syracuse, Rutgers and Louisville, especially with the Rutgers game coming at home.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Step one: become more consistent. It’s not so simple as task. Holtz will preach this philosophy, of course, hoping his Bulls can maintain more level play from week-to-week, rather than the up-and-down play that defined the last handful of seasons during the Jim Leavitt era. No, it’s not so simple a task. And it’s not necessarily a process that can be completed in a single season, in fact. That’s just one of many issues the Bulls must face heading into 2010, joining the new coaching schemes, the mammoth losses on defense and a dearth of talented skill players on offense. Expect a period of transition, one exacerbated by a difficult schedule, at least by typical Big East standards. What is there to like about the Bulls? Beyond Holtz, a coach with a proven track record, South Florida could speed up the learning process should a handful of the many young, unproven contributors make an immediate impact. The offense will center around Daniels, a wonderfully talented athlete still learning how to play quarterback on the college level. The Bulls aren’t a conference title contender; in a strange way, I think Rutgers — a team I have ranked behind the Bulls — more capable of exceeding expectations and challenging for a B.C.S. berth. Nevertheless, this is a clear bowl team, though a team that will occasionally stumble while growing accustomed to a new coach, a new voice and new standards. Not to mention new philosophies on both sides of the ball.

Dream season Holtz knows what he’s doing: he leads the Bulls to a 9-3 finish, 6-1 in the Big East, and a tie atop the Big East standings.

Nightmare season Few are expecting miracles, but anything short of a bowl bid would be a disappointment.

In case you were wondering

Where do South Florida fans congregate? As always, begin with the independent site. In South Florida’s case, it’s The Bulls Pen; a solid play on words. If you’re more interested in recruiting, check out USFNation.com or USFBullsEye.com. Fans can also find local coverage at the Web sites of The St. Petersburg Times and The Tampa Tribune. For a blog’s take, visit Voodoo Five. Can someone shine light on the meaning of Voodoo Five?

And we have an answer: as the proprietor of Voodoo Five explains below, this link has the answer. Well worth the read.

Up Next

Who is No. 48? Our next program is the only one that started play after 1948 to have won 12 games in a season.

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Comments

  1. batecher says:

    No. 48 would be the Air Force Academy – started playing football in 1956 and won 12 games in 1985 and 1998.

  2. huskyskins says:

    Washington would be favored against USF on a neutral field (or any field for that matter).

  3. Voodoo Five says:

    Thanks for the plug. It’s a long story, but you can find the story of Voodoo Five below.

    http://www.voodoofive.com/2010/3/18/1378742/the-story-of-voodoo-five

  4. [...] Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the approaching college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Each post will list five things Paul likes, five things he doesn’t like about each team. Today’s team, No.49, is South Florida. Pre-Snap Read also has a longer South Florida preview. [...]

  5. Clayton says:

    I love the big east and go to UC, so here’s what i think of USF. I see the bulls at 6-6. Rutgers should probably be ranked ahead of USF since the bulls suffered some pretty devastating losses to graduation and the draft, especially on defense.

    I still think the future is really bright considering Skip Holtz is a great coach. I think Paul hit the nail on the head when he said USF has loads of potential like the other Florida BCS schools. Leavitt really needed to go, he didn’t seem to understand the potential USF really had. I just think it’s gonna be a little bit for Holtz to get USF on track, especially with how powerful UC, Pitt, UConn are right now.

    I think the Big East faces an interesting delima right now, having some very good new coaches in Holtz, Butch Jones, and Charlie Strong. It will be interesting to see which coaches sink and which coaches swim. Obviously the loss of Brian Kelly to ND hurt, but it will just be interesting to see which Big East coach is now the best in the league. Personally, I think it’s going to be Randy Edsall. Butch Jones seems to have great potential but it’s hard to say until I see the wins and losses. Replacing BK will be a tough task, but I’m very glad he went back to the 4-3.

  6. DDJR says:

    Friday’s with Jerry?

  7. Zach says:

    http://www.voodoofive.com/2010/3/18/1378742/the-story-of-voodoo-five

    voodoo five is explained in that link. I can’t really do it justice with a short explanation; you’ll really have to read the whole thing.

  8. Lane says:

    Go Bulls!!!

  9. Ya we have to image that think in the future is really bright considering Skip Holtz is a great coach.

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