One of the interesting things about the move from Conference USA to the Big East has been the attitude that the UC fan base has taken towards their new Big East rivals. New conference, new schools, new relationships. That tends to be difficult on fans trying to find their bearings in a new environment. It seems the that most logical course of action would be to bond, for want of a superior word, to those schools with which you have the most in common. For UC that would mean forging ties with Louisville and South Florida, our fellow Football playing C-USA refugees. That has more or less happened as expected with Louisville with which UC has a great deal of history, a similar mindset and a number of common objectives. UC and UofL fans have continued to coexist more or less as they always has because the relationship between the two towns and schools is ingrained in the DNA of both places. But a completely different attitude has emerged among the UC faithful towards USF, and in my estimation it boarders on contempt. The source of the attitude could be any number of things, being completely honest this attitude isn't without justification. When USF and UC were more or less equals the Bulls received more attention and coverage from the national media, there was also the gripe about USF being given more respect that they had earned while UC was consistently overlooked, maybe it was this guy or this haircut. For whatever reason, or whatever confluence of reasons, UC fans don't like USF, while that dislike doesn't come with a mountain of passion, it is pretty well rooted in the UC psyche.
The funny thing about it is that UC fans should be pretty pleased, or at least neutral with the Bulls for the simple reason that UC has owned them over the last 4 years. 23-6 in 2006, 38-33 in 2007, 24-10 in 2008 and 34-17 last season. Two programs have been more instrumental in helping to propel UC from an also ran to the two time defending conference champs than the rest. Rutgers is one of them, USF is the other. I am convinced that a program doesn't grow by knocking out the alpha dogs of a conference, they do it in incremental steps by besting their equals before advancing to the next level of the hierarchy. In the case of UC those equals were Rutgers and USF and, chronologically speaking, USF was the first to be held in UC's sway. The Bearcats first rented an apartment in the head of Matt Grothe, the best USF Football player to to date, but by the time he was done playing against UC they had an entire compound. Based on last years game the same rent to own plan the head space of BJ Daniels is in effect once again.
For me the thing to watch for from USF this fall is how they respond to Skip Holtz's regime. Football teams take on the personality of their coach. There are few better examples of that fact taking hold over a prolonged period of time than the USF program under Jim Leavitt. It always seemed to me, an outside observer, that the teams he lead were every bit as manic as he was. Equally capable of staggering moments of brilliance, as well as perfect storms of self destruction. In essence USF is the Michigan State of the Big East.
There are defiantly some players to watch for the Bulls this year, chief amongst them BJ Daniels who was their mercurial freshman phenom last year. They bring back 10 of 11 starters from last year, the only position with a new starter is TE. However, I have only seen USF line up with a TE maybe 5 times in the past 5 years that can't be much of a problem. They do have a new coach, but Holtz is an adherent to the spread so that won't be an issue. There are three main questions for me about the offense.
- Will BJ Daniels improve his decision making? Yes he was a freshman last season but in a QB friendly offense he completed just 53 per cent of his passes with 14 TD's against 9 INT's. logic indicates that he will, statistics back that up as the greatest period of improvement a player will have comes between year one and two. But it isn't a hard and fast rule and can not be assumed
- Will a complementary running threat emerge? Daniels was the running game last year. Moise Plancher had a nice year last season with over 500 yards. But he strikes me as a back better suited for a RB by committee approach where his bruising running style can be accented with a more all around back. This year he is it and I have questions about his ability to handle all the facets of Holtz's offense
- How will the offensive line hold up? The line returns all five starters and should improve this season. The problem is that the line was not good last year. They gave up 38 sacks and 94 tackles for loss which is, in the most mild terms possible, very bad. even a staggering improvement in performance and production, cutting sacks by a third and TLFs by a quarter. over last years standards would still leave the unit average relative to the rest of the country and conference.
On defense there are a couple of very serious questions
- Can anyone rush the passer? George Selvie and Jason Piere-Paul are both gone, there are a couple of programs out there who can sustain the loss of two NFL draftees at DE's and replace them with if not great players than above average players. USF is not among them. I do like Ryne Giddens who was a big time recruiting coupe for the outgoing regime, but is unlikely to have a huge year.
- How will the secondary hold up? Last years group was the best in the conference. That statement is pretty unequivocal, they topped the charts in passing yards and pass efficiency defense. But departed from that group are Nate Allen and Jerome Murhpy. Allen is the guy they are really going to miss, he really seemed like the talisman for that group. When those losses are coupled with what promises to be a diminished pass rush you have to think that the group is going to be less productive.
On paper USF has some things going for them. But I don't expect them to match or exceed their performance from last year. For a start they won't have a defense of lat years caliber to lean on while the offense goes through its inevitable trials and tribulations under Daniels direction. The offense does bring back a ton of starters and front line players. But their level of performance wasn't that great last year, particularly up front and they have the added problems associated with a new coaching staff. I think USF will make a bowl this year, but it will be interesting to see if they can acquire some form of consistency from this new staff because they had precious few occurrences of it under Levitt.