Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Bulls.

Previously On… USF lived on the edge over the second half of 2010, and died on it. But mostly lived: Over the last seven games, the Bulls won two in overtime, another by one point, another on a defensive stand in the final minute and took the bowl game by five — five wins by a grand total of 20 points.

They also dropped games to Pittsburgh by a touchdown and to UConn on a last-second field goal in the same span, lending a certain what-could-have-been vibe in the midst of an anarchic Big East race. In general, though, the dice came up in USF's favor, delivering its sixth consecutive winning season and bowl trip in as many years in the conference — an ordinary season under most circumstances, especially in light of the somnambulant offense. But eight wins was a critical benchmark for first-year coach Skip Holtz in the wake of the controversial exit of the only other head coach in the history of the program, Jim Leavitt, whose backers on campus can't claim that the departure of its architect set the program back on the field.

The Big Change. The Bulls lost their leading rusher (Mo Plancher) and receiver (Dontavia Bogan), but neither will be missed to nearly the extent of center Sampson Genus and tackles Jamar Simms and Jacob Bass, veteran anchors with 77 starts between them over the last three years. It's no coincidence that last year's offense relied far more heavily on the running backs than it did under the Leavitt-era spread attack, in which quarterbacks Matt Grothe and B.J. Daniels led the team in rushing four years in a row and conventional, between-the-tackles handoffs were basically ignored: Genus and Sims were All-Big East picks, a repeat nod for Genus, leaving the offense with just four returning starters — fewer than any team in the Big East except Louisville — and no apparent standouts among them.

The Least You Should Know About...

South Florida
In 2010
8-5 (3-5 Big East); Won Car Care Bowl
Past Five Years
2006-10: 42-23 (16-19 Big East); 4-1 in bowl games.
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2007-11: NR • NR • 29 • NR • NR
Best Player
Official heights and weights released by teams tend to be, let's say ... idealistic. So when you're officially listed at 5-foot-8, 161 pounds, you'd better be able to run, really run, and junior receiver/kick returner Lindsey Lamar can: A top sprinter on the USF track team, Lamar's explosiveness in the return game made him the team leader in all-purpose yards as a sophomore, and his kickoff returns for touchdowns against Syracuse (the Bulls' only touchdown of the game) and Louisville made him the coaches' choice for Big East Special Teams Player of the Year. Lamar also capped his first season as a receiver (he played running back as a freshman) by pulling in a career-high five passes for 40 yards in the bowl win over Clemson, a preview of his turn as one of the Bulls' go-to offensive weapons this fall.
Best Year Ever
There were still some casual college football fans who didn't know South Florida existed in 2007, before the upstart Bulls knocked off Auburn, North Carolina and West Virginia in consecutive weeks en route to a 6-0 start and stunning No. 2 ranking in the initial BCS standings in mid-October. The dream quickly melted in a three-game losing streak, but USF rallied to finish 9-4 and firmly in the national consciousness for the first time — if not in the final polls, a distinction it's still waiting to hold.
Best Case
Scott and Aycock lead the Big East's most productive ground attack, Daniels benefits from defenses' attention to the run, defense holds serve in the top 20; season-opening upset at Notre Dame fuels fast start en route to Big East championship. 9-3, BCS bowl, low top 25.
Worst Case
Offense fails to establish the run, continues to languish at the bottom of the conference; defense done in by untimely turnovers. 5-7, first losing season since 2004.
* Based on Rivals' national rankings (top 50 only)

Big Men On Campus. It took maybe 10 minutes after he arrived in Tampa last spring for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder to begin raving about the speed of the linebackers, which turned out to be prescient: The starting 'backers were the top three tacklers on the team with 205 total stops between them, and regular Sabbath Joseph not far behind with 43 of his own for a defense that (along with most of the defenses in the offensively-challenged Big East) finished in the top 25 nationally in total and scoring D. The lynchpin of that group, Jacquian Williams, is on his way out, as is Joseph. But up-and-comers Sam Barrington (a true sophomore in his first season as a starter in '10) and Devekeyan "DeDe" Lattimore (a freshman All-American according to Phil Steele) were as active in their debut as any returning duo in the conference, and ought to have an All-Big East nod waiting for at least one of them by year's end.

Open Casting. There doesn't appear to be any serious challenger to B.J. Daniels as the starting quarterback, which has a lot more to do with the lack of quality depth than anything Daniels has done to entrench himself in the job. He threw 13 interceptions last year, his first as a full-time starter, to just 11 touchdowns, while adding far less as a runner (259 yards, 5 touchdowns) that he did as a redshirt freshman, when plans b), c) and d) if the primary receiver wasn't open all read "run like hell." Given the dismal results through the air — USF finished 101st nationally in passing offense, 98th in pass efficiency and 105th in total offense — he might have been better off doing a little more of that as a sophomore. Anything that reduces the number of times per game Daniels has to throw in a given afternoon is a priority.

That's one reason all eyes this spring are glued on the running backs, a forgotten position here for most of the last five years. The other is that two of the candidates for carries are high-profile transfers Dontae Aycock (top picture), a former four-star recruit at Auburn in 2009, and none other than Darrell Scott, once heralded as one the handful of elite prospects at any position when he signed with Colorado in 2008. If someone published "Bust" Magazine for the overheated, post-Internet era of recruiting, Scott would be its most frequent cover boy.

The third guy in the mix is Demetris Murray, the second-leading rusher last year, who qualifies as the runt of the litter at a mere 202 pounds; Aycock, who is apparently composed of Neptunium, reportedly carries in the neighborhood of 224 pounds on a 5-9 frame, while Scott showed up for spring practice packing 230. With thumpers like that in the fold and an extremely limited passing game, the requisite buzzword is "downhill": Whether it comes via the I-formation (the Bulls frequently deployed an actual fullback last year) or a one-back, zone-blocking scheme, his should be the most rugged edition of the USF offense in ages.

Overly optimistic spring narrative. The Big East lent itself to a lot of low-scoring battles of attrition last year, and was ultimately won by the team with the worst passing offense in the league, UConn, which based its run to the Fiesta Bowl on repeatedly plowing tailback Jordan Todman into the line of scrimmage until the wheels fell off. USF has at least two workhorse types whose initial recruiting hype suggests they have the raw potential to reproduce such a slog to the top of the conference rushing charts and standings. It doesn't hurt that the most obvious preseason frontrunner, West Virginia, is losing most of its dominant defensive front and has to come to Tampa to close the regular season.

The Big Question. Who's the go-to playmaker on offense? The backfield riches remain purely hypothetical: Neither Aycock nor Scott did anything at their initial stops to suggest they might be up-and-coming stars, and Aycock is coming off October knee surgery; Murray's part-time role last year suggests he's Just a Guy. The returning receivers were uninspiring in Bogan's shadow, and if that's more of a reflection of the mediocre quarterback than their own talent, well, the mediocre quarterback is the same.

What it really amounts to, then, is how far Daniels has progressed as he hits his junior season, and to what an extent an improved running game will allow him to demonstrate that progress. Can he make defenses respect his arm enough to keep them from loading the box? Can he make them pay for it downfield if they do? Can better production on first and second down help Daniels reverse his dismal third-down rate? If yes, USF is a serious Big East contender. If not, see the last two years.

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Other premature assessments (in alphabetical order): Iowa State. … Nebraska. … Nevada.

Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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