August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
No. 18 SOUTH FLORIDA
2016 record: 11-2
Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 15 vs. Illinois
Biggest conference game: Nov. 4 vs. Houston
Key returning player: QB Quinton Flowers
Key departed player: RB Marlon Mack
Three things to know about South Florida
• After a tumultuous tenure at Texas, Charlie Strong enters a built-to-win-now situation at USF.
When Willie Taggart left Tampa to take the Oregon job, USF swooped in to nab Strong, who was fired at Texas after a third-straight losing season in Austin. With the Longhorns, Strong was tasked with cleaning up a program that was in disarray at the conclusion of the Mack Brown era. Strong previously built Louisville back up to a high level, but his hard-nosed style — especially on offense — never quite fit in the Big 12, and he took too long to adjust.
At USF, Strong has things set up a little differently — in a state he spent many, many years as an assistant, including three stints at Florida. The Bulls are pretty significant favorites to win the AAC (with Memphis not *too* far behind) after winning 11 games in 2016. Taggart built things gradually: Two wins in year one, four wins in year two, eight wins in year three and 11 wins in year four.
Strong inherits a team that returns 16 starters and has a cakewalk schedule. USF’s non-conference slate looks like this: at San Jose State, vs. Stony Brook, vs. Illinois and vs. UMass. SJSU, Illinois and UMass combined to win nine FBS games last season and Stony Brook went 5-6 at the FCS level.
Games like that won’t do much for a team’s résumé, so the Bulls can’t afford more than a loss or two if they want to be the Group of Five representative in a New Year’s Six bowl game. In the AAC, the Bulls get defending champs Temple (which also has a new coach) at home on Sept. 21, but miss out on West division favorite Memphis and don’t face another team that had a winning record in 2016 until their final three games: Houston (Nov. 4) and Tulsa (Nov. 16) at home, and a season finale at rival UCF on Nov. 24. Oh, and USF won’t leave the state of Florida after an Oct. 21 trip to Tulane.
The Bulls could find themselves firmly in the national conversation, much like Western Michigan was last year. At the very least, this schedule sets up nicely for a march to the division title.
[Pat Forde: College football’s 25 most intriguing head coaches]
• Led by quarterback Quinton Flowers, USF should have one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
Unlike at Texas, there’s no question who Strong will start at quarterback. Flowers, the reigning AAC Player of the Year, is one of the most dynamic athletes in college football and probably the best dual-threat quarterback not named Lamar Jackson. His numbers in 2016 were ridiculous: 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns passing, 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns rushing. Flowers completed 62.5 percent of his passes and tossed only seven interceptions and he averaged 7.7 yards per rush. Pretty good, huh?
Early on in his tenure, Taggart didn’t want to run a spread offense, but once he did and took advantage of the speed of the roster, the Bulls exploded. Flowers said at AAC Media Days last month he expects the Bulls, now with Sterlin Gilbert (who was brought by Strong to Texas from Tulsa to run an up-tempo offense and comes from the Art Briles/Dino Babers coaching tree) at offensive coordinator, to play “way faster” than last season. That’s a scary prospect.
Strong won’t have the luxury of Marlon Mack in the backfield alongside Flowers. Mack, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons and had a career-high 15 TDs in 2016, left early for the NFL and was picked by Indianapolis in the fourth round. In Mack’s absence, senior D’Ernest Johnson has the opportunity to see an increased role. He rushed for 543 yards and eight touchdowns last year while adding 28 catches for 293 yards and five scores through the air.
Flowers lost his leading receiver, Rodney Adams, as well. Adams caught 67 balls for 822 yards and five scores primarily out of the slot. But pretty much everyone else returns for the Bulls, including receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Tyre McCants, plus tight end Mitchell Wilcox. Temi Alaka, a graduate transfer receiver from Rice, also joins the mix.
USF will be a fun team to watch on offense.
• As good as USF should be on offense, there needs to be improvement on defense for this team to meet its potential.
USF was No. 120 nationally in total defense last season, allowing an average of 482 yards per game. That’s ninth-worst in the country. Strong made his name as a defensive coach. So he has to clean things up to some extent, right?
Brian Jean-Mary, Strong’s linebackers coach at Louisville and Texas, has been appointed defensive coordinator. It’s his first time in that role. He’ll coach up a unit that returns nine starters, including leading tackler Auggie Sanchez (116 tackles), leading pass-rusher Bruce Hector (tied with Sanchez with a team-leading six sacks), top interior lineman Deadrin Senat (34 tackles, 7 TFL) and top corner Deatrick Nichols (4 INT).
That’s a good place to start, and having all of that experience can only make the defense better, right? Strong told Yahoo Sports one way he aims to help the defense is by simplifying things:
The defense can only improve under Strong’s tutelage after finishing No. 91 in scoring defense last year. Strong said he’s simplified the system with less checks and adjustments to let star middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez and eight other returning starters play more freely.
For more USF news, visit RunningTheBulls.com.
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