College football is beautifully, maddeningly fickle. It was designed that way. When you tell tell 18- to 22-year-old young men to play an increasingly complicated, increasingly fast, increasingly athletic game, and you hand them a pointy ball with which to play, odd things are going to happen. There is no way around it. And in 2011, nobody knew this better than Skip Holtz's South Florida Bulls. A trendy pick to win the Big East title in Holtz's second year in charge, the Bulls seemed to take a hefty step backwards; after five straight seasons of playing either eight- or nine-win ball, they won just five games last fall and missed a bowl for the first time since the 2004 season, their fifth at the FBS level.
But … did they really regress? In 2010, USF ranked 40th in F/+ and went 3-2 in games decided by more than one possession. In 2011, they ranked 40th again and went 4-2 in such games. The difference: they went 5-3 in one-possession games in 2010 and went 1-5 in 2011. All the components were in place for USF to field yet another decent, reasonably successful team. But you still need bounces and breaks, and you still need to make the right plays at the right time.
So now Holtz enters Year Three with, in theory, a lot of promise. His Top 40 team returns eight starters on each side of the ball, along with almost its entire defensive two-deep, some interesting newcomers and a solid kicker to boot. (Get it? To boot?) But after years of earning a certain benefit of the doubt, they have to earn it back after a season that saw them play steady ball on paper but lose seven of their last eight games on the actual field of play. For those who indeed picked them to win their conference last fall, do you double down on the Bulls in 2012, or do you hedge?
In so many ways, USF seemed like the perfect candidate for building a national power from scratch. The Bulls are obviously close to quite a few fertile recruiting areas, and they have an enormous base of students, and though they are lacking in certain areas -- no stadium of their own (they play at the home of the Tampa Bay Bucs), an obvious lack of history -- they were quickly able to develop a certain level of competence. Like about 33 other teams, they briefly ranked second in the country in the wacky 2007 season, and they have clearly established a steady level of play, ranking worse than 40th in F/+ only once since 2005 (they were 60th in 2009). But whether Holtz or anybody else can bring them forward too much more, or whether we are experiencing a glass ceiling of sorts, we don't yet know. But if the ceiling is higher than what we've recently seen, we'll begin to find out in 2012.
Here's what I said about USF in last summer's preview, which managed to combine Skip Holtz, Bob Dylan and Rakim:
That they have been to six straight bowl games, ranked in the Top 10 in two different seasons (including a brief peak at No. 2 in 2007) and finished .500 or better in 10 of 11 seasons is a damn impressive accomplishment. Jim Leavitt set the table nicely, and following Leavitt's awkward dismissal last year, Skip Holtz kept the train rolling in 2010. The Bulls have won either eight or nine games for five consecutive seasons, but as I've said before, a plateau of any kind, even a pretty good one, bores fans after a while. Can Holtz figure out how to crack the glass ceiling and advance South Florida into the land of double-digit wins? […]
I think USF's a year away. In this year's publication, Phil Steele picked the Bulls to surprise and finish tied for first in the Big East, but I just can't really see it. They had some fumbles luck, and their YPP margin suggests they were a bit lucky in regard to efficiency. They do not return a lofty level of experience, especially on offense, and ... I just don't see it. I see a young offense lacking in receiving threats and a confusing front seven on defense, but I see a seventh consecutive bowl game, seven or eight wins and a wonderfully experienced team that heads into 2012 with big expectations. […]
After a likely 3-1 start, the Bulls are staring at an @Pitt-@UConn-Cincy-@Rutgers-@Syracuse stretch. That's five potential bowl teams, four away from home. That they finish with home games against Miami, Louisville, and West Virginia is nice, but their title hopes will probably be dead by then. The pieces in place should make for another up-and-down season, but the pieces that will still be in place next year are intriguing.
Well, I've gotten the first part right. Saying a team is "a year away" means that you both think that they will struggle that year and think that they will thrive the next, and while South Florida wasn't as bad as its record last year, the Bulls certainly didn't live up to some people's expectations.
What's funny is, it almost looks like the Bulls used up all of their luck in the first game. They turned Notre Dame over three times inside the USF 10, won the Turnover Points battle by a whopping 33.7 points, and upset the Irish in South Bend, 23-20, to start the season. After three easy home wins against Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP, USF found itself undefeated and ranked 16th in the country. Then everything went to hell. USF collapsed late in a 27-point loss at Pittsburgh, then lost three straight, to UConn, Cincinnati and Rutgers, by a combined 12 points. They lost the turnover points battle by 13.0 points in a six-point loss to UConn, were minus-4.8 in a three-point loss to Cincinnati, and were minus-1.1 in a three-point loss to Rutgers. Distribute the luck from the Notre Dame game throughout the rest of the season, and you lose to N.D. but win three or four other games.
The season wrapped up with three-point home losses to Miami and West Virginia as well. From an Adj. Points perspective, the Bulls were consistently decent, but again, you still need bounces (at the right times), and you still need to make the right plays to win. With experience, it is possible the Bulls will do just that this fall.
Right out of the gates, let's answer the first two questions that almost immediately come to mind when discussing the South Florida offense:
- Yes, quarterback B.J. Daniels has been at USF since 1997. He was in Jim Leavitt's inaugural recruiting class, actually. (Okay, no he wasn't.)
- No, USF isn't a run-heavy outfit just because Skip Holtz's last name is Holtz.
When you see the Holtzian surname, you may immediately develop some preconceptions based on Skip's father, Lou, but they will lead you astray. USF certainly hasn't turned into an Airraid outfit by any means, but under offensive coordinator Todd Fitch, Holtz's coordinator at East Carolina as well, the Bulls operate from a mostly balanced approach. They ran 59 percent of the time on standard downs in 2011 (national average: 60 percent) and 29 percent on passing downs (national average: 33 percent), and that was with a running threat (B.J. Daniels averaged 10 non-sack carries per game) behind center. This offense does not necessarily take full advantage of Daniels' skill set -- he averaged 5.8 yards per non-sack carry and averaged just 6.6 yards per pass attempt, including sacks -- but the senior has, to say the least, been around the block. He did, however, complete 59 percent of his passes, and he did avoid both sacks (3.4 percent sack rate) and picks (1.9 percent interception rate). The former four-star recruit from Tallahassee Lincoln high school has developed into a solid, if unspectacular, game manager through the years. And though USF didn't run as much as you might think a Holtzian offense would, they still ran very efficiently -- they were second in the country in Rushing Success Rate+.
Daniels will have quantity on his side in 2012. Last year, three Bulls (including Daniels) rushed at least 10 times per game, five receivers were targeted by at least three passes per game, and another six were targeted at least once per game. Most return. There are perhaps only two proven entities: senior running back Demetris Murray rushed for 503 and a perfectly decent plus-3.3 Adj. POE (meaning he was about three points better than the average running back last year; leading rusher and pro entry Darrell Scott had a plus-0.3), while junior receiver Sterling Griffin was a lovely possession receiver last fall (74 percent catch rate, 12.3 yards per catch) but had an iffy spring. But any number of candidates could join those two in filling out an interesting group. There's senior running back-turned-receiver-turned-running back Lindsey Lamar. There's former four-star running back Bradley Battles. There's sophomore receiver Andre Davis, who had a fantastic spring. There are interesting tight ends Evan Landl and one-time Florida commit Mike McFarland. There are incoming four-star signees D'Vario Montgomery (receiver) and Sean Price (tight end).
Perhaps the biggest strength of the USF offense last year was a line that ranked 15th in Adj. Line Yards and 14th in Adj. Sack Rate. They plowed the way for a wonderfully efficient attack despite the fact that primary rushers Scott and Murray were only good, not great. Three starters return from said line, though the two most experienced -- second-team all-conference guard Jeremiah Warren and center Chaz Hine, each three-year starters -- are gone. USF managed to start exactly the same line in all 12 games last year, and while that sort of good injury luck is good in the present tense, it means you don't end up with as much experience when seniors leave. There are two big pairs of shoes to fill up front, but again, quantity is on the Bulls' side. There are quite a few interesting replacement candidates; and for what it's worth, USF lost THREE line starters last year and still improved by quite a bit.
"Every time you throw a touchdown pass, you get excited. 'Ooh, nice play.' Then you say 'Who was the safety?' That was our defense, too."
Most of the spring practice articles in the Tampa Bay area focused on South Florida's exciting, dynamic offense and how good it was looking. Of course, every one of the good plays it made came at the expense of the defense. Obviously we don't know how much came against the first string, second string, et cetera, but it is certainly a way to temper excitement about the offense at least a bit.
Though the Bulls' defense had a far from amazing spring, this is still a unit that ranked 24th in Def. F/+ in 2011 and returns eight starters. In 2011, the run defense got a little better (primarily because of some great closing-out by linebackers and safeties) but the pass defense got a little worse. USF defensive backs were not used aggressively at all, either because they weren't allowed to or weren't capable of doing it well, and it showed: USF ranked 79th in Passing Success Rate+. They allowed severe cushions to opposing receivers, and it hurt them at times. But they still did a strong job of preventing big plays and extending drives, and eventually some USF defender, probably a linebacker, would make a play.
Virtually every name of importance returns. Linebackers DeDe Lattimore, Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington combined to make 30 percent of USF's tackles, record 24 tackles for loss, defend nine passes and force three fumbles. They all return, as do interesting backups like senior Mike Jeune (4.0 tackles for loss). Former high-four-star end Ryne Giddins also returns after a decent fall (5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles) and a solid spring, and junior Julius Forte, a pass-rush specialist last year, is back, too. Big tackle Cory Grissom is also expected to be at 100 percent after breaking his ankle this spring.
Of course, all of the players mentioned above are on the front seven. Is there help coming in the secondary? Hard to say. Corner Kayvon Webster is a decent playmaker (nine passes defended) despite the cushions USF backs were allowing, and senior safety Jon Lejiste was a nice box score filler (2.0 tackles for loss, one sack, one pick, one forced fumble), but improvement will probably only take place if interesting younger players like junior college transfers Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown or sophomore safety Trevon Griffin are able to contribute at a high level. Junior safety JaQuez Jenkins, a backup last year, had a solid spring, for whatever that is worth to you.
Phil Steele is once again going all-in with USF, and honestly, while they should get strong competition from the likes of Rutgers and Louisville (and maybe Pitt), I am inclined to agree. Not everybody is quite as optimistic, but I'm going to set the bar at eight wins and, at worst, a one-game loss in the conference title race. Win eight games after going 5-7, and you can't be TOO disappointed, but enough pieces are in place that anything less than that would feel like a missed opportunity.
Skip Holtz, a modern day version of his goofy father, continues to be considered one of the hotter young coaches in college football -- through none of his own doing, he has been considered a candidate for seemingly every major conference opening in the last year or two -- but it is something of a make-or-break year for his Bulls in 2012. So many of USF's difference-makers are seniors, from quarterback B.J. Daniels to five of the top six linebackers, and even if he keeps USF on a solid trajectory, they will still probably take a step backwards in 2013. So if he doesn't win big in 2012, it might take him a little while to get his team back to this point. USF should be strong, and if they win their share of close games, they should be a serious contender for the Big East crown.
While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together: