It has been a slow build to this moment for USF.
Perhaps that was never more acute than Week 2 of last season. It was not simply a loss to Florida State; the Bulls had done plenty of losing in Willie Taggart’s first two seasons. But on the road, cloaked in early-season optimism, it was a measuring stick to see how far the program had come under Taggart against one of the big boys.
South Florida hung around for three quarters, but Florida State pulled away like a boat race in Hillsborough Bay. Dalvin Cook ran wild for 266 yards, and Taggart recognized real after the game, saying, "Cook's the real deal," to reporters.
That was then, this is now.
The Noles were wounded Saturday at Louisville, and if they spend too much time licking those wounds and don’t wake up for a noon ET ABC kickoff, USF can win as just 5.5-point underdogs. The Bulls are 3-0 and have yet to win by fewer than 31 points, including on the road against the ACC’s Syracuse.
This Saturday, when the two teams renew pleasantries in Tampa (FSU leads the young series, 2-1), there’s a perception-changing win at stake.
To understand the stakes, let’s put things in perspective.
Think about the landscape of football in the Sunshine State, dominated for decades by Florida, Florida State, and, Miami.
For UCF, USF, FAU, and FIU, it isn’t a glass ceiling of second-class citizenship in the state, it’s a bank vault door welded shut. Those are the mid-majors with one-hit wonders like Blake Bortles and T.Y. Hilton and a big bowl win here and there.
Our USF blog has a great story from one fan who can’t even bring himself to hate the Noles. It goes into a lot of the ways fandom is divided in the state. USF’s biggest opponent in the state is perception, more than it is anything that actually happens on the field.
Former USF QB Steven Bench writes about being a Florida State fan when the Bulls beat the Seminoles in 2009:
I was 15 years old, sitting in a skybox inside Doak Campbell Stadium. The energy had been completely drained from the place, with the exception of all those players and coaches wearing green. This wasn’t like the other home games I had gone to, and I had been to all of them for three years straight up to that point. My parents both went to FSU, and I lived about 30 minutes north of campus. Safe to say being a Seminole fan wasn’t much of an option.
I was born with garnet and gold in my blood. So that September day crushed me as much as anyone else, if not more. I just stared down at the field, all the white uniforms going to the locker room and all the green ones celebrating a huge victory. I remember the entire stadium just feeling sad.
If the Bulls are good enough to hang with the Noles again, Taggart’s rebuilding job will become front and center on the national stage. The Tampa-area native is a young coach (only 40) who comes from the Jim Harbaugh tree and has proved he can build a program the best way: by nailing recruiting in his home state. Do not ever question the impact of young black kids seeing someone who looks like them achieve. It is invaluable, and it is too infrequent.
USF will not immediately vault into the Big Three with a win Saturday, but if there was a perfect time for the Bulls to assert themselves as a legitimate threat to No. 6 Houston and the rest of the American Athletic Conference, it is now. A win over the Noles would reverberate from Niceville to Key West, but a chance to beat Houston in December and get into a New Year's Six bowl would be an even bigger goal.
USF’s been to this level before. It was just a little while ago.
It has been nearly 10 years since college football was turned on its head and for the first time, the nation heard about USF. 2007 was a weird season, but one thing stands out the most from that year: USF, in just its eighth FBS season, was at one point the No. 2 team in the nation.
There the Bulls were on a Friday night in the NFL stadium they call home, after beating an Auburn team earlier in the season that would have gone to the SEC Championship had it not been for Les Miles’ voodoo magic. It took six turnovers and an injury to WVU’s Pat White, but the Bulls did it, and in the first BCS rankings, they were No. 2.
The party didn’t last long, however.
Still, the table scraps of the three recruiting powers in the state should have been good enough for USF to remain a consistent threat, especially with Florida State teetering in the late stages of Bobby Bowden’s career. Things weren’t exactly sunshine and daisies at Miami either, with Larry Coker out and Randy Shannon trying to revive the program.
But by January 2010, Jim Leavitt was fired. He was the only coach the program had ever had, but was ousted after the school found he lied to investigators.
USF hired Skip Holtz, and that was a bad choice in hindsight. The team got worse every year, culminating in a 3-9 2012. They beat Notre Dame in 2011, though, and that was hilarious. The highlight is set to Evanescence. Watch it.
Holtz left a roster devoid of depth and a program devoid of buzz when Taggart took over.
Each year under Taggart, they got better, and in Week 5 of 2015, it happened for Taggart’s Bulls. A flea flicker was the shot in the arm the program needed, and since then, it’s been nothing but up.
Since the win over Syracuse in Week 4 last season, USF has lost twice. Once to Keenan Reynolds’ Navy, and once to a Western Kentucky team that finished 15th in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings.
In 2016, USF has been straight dunking on fools, albeit early in the season, and doing so with a strong ground game, rushing for 5.88 yards per carry on the season over Towson, Northern Illinois and Syracuse. Junior QB Quinton Flowers leads the AAC in passer rating. The Bulls have scored 56, 48 and 45 points respectively. They’ve beaten bad teams in the manner a good team should.
So here we are.
This thing has been building in Tampa to this moment. It has been a long road, painfully long at times, for this program to have a chance to matter not just around the state, but nationally. It won’t be easy, as Bench writes:
I think FSU getting beat 63-20 last week is one of the worst things that could have happened to the Bulls. Be honest here — what are the chances a Jimbo Fisher coached FSU team plays that badly two weeks in a row? Not gonna happen. They’re gonna come out with a point to prove to the entire country. Look for them to have a slightly different look against USF, and by different I mean better.
Still, as Taggart would tell you: get on the bus, or it might run you over on the way to bigger and better things.