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South Florida Has the Talent (and the Schedule) to Run the Table

South Florida is being propped up as the Group of Five's best hope for a playoff bid. Can Charlie Strong run the table in his first year in Tampa?

Welcome to Hype Week, our look at the teams fans and analysts seem to be especially excited about heading into the season. Some of these squads may turn out to be really good! Others, though, could drastically underperform expectations. Our goal is to examine why each of these teams is getting so much hype, and whether they can live up to it. On Monday we covered Penn State; today, South Florida (No. 17 in SI’s preseason Top 25) goes under the microscope.

After an 11–2 season capped off by a five-game winning streak that included a victory over South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl, South Florida is on nearly every preseason Top 25 list. Even the departure of head coach Willie Taggart for Oregon didn’t do much to tamp down expectations for 2017 in Tampa. That’s in large part because the American Athletic Conference, although it still occasionally functions as a stopover league for young coaches on their way to bigger jobs, now has the clout to lure the likes of Charlie Strong to pick up where Taggart left off.

With Strong at the helm, USF’s Top 25 ranking is deserved—the Bulls could even be a top-10 team at midseason. Strong inherits a roster with some of the best offensive personnel in the country, and he will draw upon his strong ties in the state of Florida to build on that talent in his first few recruiting classes. But in the near term, only one name matters on the Bulls’ offense: Quinton Flowers.

Last year, in his second season as the starting quarterback, Flowers threw for 2,800 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and he also rushed for 1,609 yards (averaging 8.7 per carry) and 18 touchdowns, meaning he accounted for 55% of his team’s trips to the end zone. With so much riding on Flowers and the offense in Strong’s first year, it will be interesting to see to what extent the Bulls choose to install new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s veer-and-shoot offense, which Strong’s teams used to some success at Texas. Drastically changing USF’s lethal spread option attack that found so much success a year ago is a dangerous proposition, but if Gilbert can adapt elements of his scheme to fit Flowers’s skill set, there’s a chance the Bulls could be even more dominant on that side of the ball in 2017.

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A relatively weak schedule will go a long way in getting them to double-digit wins. USF doesn’t face a single team in SI’s preseason top 25, with nonconference games against San Jose State, Stony Brook and Illinois. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Bulls rank 102nd in strength of schedule this season, making them a long shot to make the College Football Playoff even if they go undefeated. For comparison, look at Western Michigan a year ago: The Broncos ran the table through a schedule that ranked 75th in the country, then landed at No. 15 in the final AP Poll after a loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. The AAC gets a bit more respect around college football than the MAC, but if USF’s schedule proves as weak as it’s predicted to be, this team’s ceiling is a New Year’s Six bowl berth and nothing more–which is nothing to be ashamed of.

Another reason to pump the brakes is the defense, which put up abysmal numbers a season ago, allowing an average of 28.2 points in the team’s 11 wins and 50.5 in its two losses. If the Bulls lose, it’s simply because their high-scoring offense can’t quite keep up with the onslaught of points their defense allows.

Strong rose up the coaching ranks on the strength of the defenses he built, but eight months under his tutelage isn’t enough to totally revamp a mediocre unit, much less a bad one. It’ll take a few years of recruiting and instruction to get this unit up to snuff, which should be no knock on Strong. It’s simply a matter of time: Although 2013 Louisville allowed the fewest yards per game that season, it took four years under Strong to get the Cardinals there.

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For now, USF’s offense may be enough to compensate for its defense as Strong molds his program. He needs interior defenders comfortable with playing hybrid roles, and his best defenses have relied on strong corners who excel in man coverage. On top of that, his defense needs to have the endurance to play at a high level even as the Bulls’ big-play offense keeps sending them back out onto the field. How much his current roster can adapt to those demands remains to be seen, but early preseason signs have been encouraging. At this point, anything is better than last year’s performance, when the defense allowed an average of 482.0 yards per game.

Flowers and Strong are talented enough to deliver on USF’s preseason hype, and there’s certainly cause for optimism about the program’s broader future thanks to the AAC’s recent push to approach the strength and depth of the Power 5 conferences. USF won’t have to fight for respect the way Western Michigan did a year ago, but it’ll take some time under Strong for it to be a true contender. That said, three years removed from a 4–8 season that followed a season with double-digit losses, the optimism surrounding the Bulls is earned, and they should be a team to watch in 2017 and for several years to come.