It’s a race that begins with 62 teams and only one survives. The schools of “The Little Five” conferences (American, Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA & Sun Belt) get one bid in college football’s big bowls, The New Year’s Six. Anointing any one team as a prohibitive favorite in a field this large is dicey, but if anyone deserves that status it’s the South Florida Bulls.
South Florida is coming off an 11-2 campaign in 2016, the best since they began playing big-time college football in 2000. Predictably, they lost their head coach, Willie Taggart, to a big-time gig at Oregon. But the Bulls landed on their feet, getting Charlie Strong as the replacement.
Strong’s three-year stint in Texas didn’t go well, but he was an unequivocal success at Louisville, winning a Sugar Bowl in 2012. He developed Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback and remains an acknowledged defensive expert. I believe that experience, rather than the tension-filled drama in Austin where he was never fully accepted by the boosters, to be more relevant to his new new job.
The smart money agrees. South Florida’s Over/Under for wins is 10, the highest of any Little Five school. Only two others, Western Kentucky and San Diego State, are as high as 9.5 and everyone else is 8.5 or lower.
Strong has a defense and offensive line stacked with experience, and an explosive quarterback to direct it all. Quinton Flowers, a multi-dimensional threat, has a chance to at least be invited to New York City for the Heisman ceremony on the second Saturday in December.
South Florida was one of the handful of teams to start their season last Saturday. They struggled early against San Jose State, digging a 16-zip hole, but quickly took over. South Florida scored 28 points in the second quarter, extended the lead to as much as 42-16 before giving up a fourth-quarter touchdown that left the final at 42-22.
The late TD cost South Florida bettors, as the pointspread was (-21), but for those of us who use the lines as a gauge of realistic expectations, it’s fair to say that South Florida met them in this game, which is a good start to meeting them for the season overall.
September’s gauntlet won’t be easy. South Florida isn’t going to lose to Stony Brook on Saturday, but the mere fact they’re already playing their second game is noteworthy. They visit Connecticuit on September 9, where the Huskies’ Randy Edsall—another coach who reached a big bowl game at the midmajor level, then struggled in the power conferences—has returned to rebuild.
South Florida then plays two straight games on a short week, hosting Illinois on a Friday night, followed by Temple on a Thursday. If the Bulls are 5-0 after September 21, they’re in good shape to reach November undefeated when they host Houston and Tulsa.
The stakes are high for Little Five teams—if you don’t get the bid to the New Year’s Six, it’s a long fall into the array of bowl games played the week prior to Christmas. I won’t say South Florida’s season is a failure if they don’t get that premium bowl bid, but it will be tough for anyone to really celebrate anything less .