Our ranking: No. 30 USF BULLS
Coach: Charlie Strong (0-0, entering first season; 53-27 overall)
2016 record: 11-2, 7-1 in American Athletic Conference, second in East Division
Look back: Former USF coach Willie Taggart went from the hot seat to hot coaching prospect after three years of work turning around the Bulls program paid off in a big way. QB Quinton Flowers won 2016 American Athletic Conference offensive player of the year honors after passing for 2,807 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushing for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Bulls set a school record with 11 wins while setting 40 team and individual records, including single season total yards (6,650), rushing yards (3,714), touchdowns (77) and scoring (569). An October 46-30 loss at Temple during which the defense struggled and Flowers suffered hamstring injury prevented USF from competing for an AAC title. The Bulls rebounded by closing the year on a five-year win streak, including a 46-39 overtime victory against South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
Taggart accepted the Oregon head coaching job and the Bulls landed coach Charlie Strong, who was fired by Texas despite protests by loyal players.
Offensive starters returning: 9
Offensive starters lost: 2
Defensive starters returning: 4
Defensive starters lost: 7
Key losses: RB Marlon Mack, WR Rodney Adams, OT Kofi Amichia, OG Dominique Threatt, LB Nigel Harris, S Nate Godwin
Top returnees: QB Quinton Flowers, WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, C Cameron Ruff, LB Augie Sanchez, DT Bruce Hector,DT Deadrin Senat, DC DEatrick Nichols
Strengths: Strong inherits a team that is loaded with talent, including six 2016 All-AAC performers, and is favored to win the American Athletic Conference title.
“It’s very humbling, just because from where we came,” USF senior LB Auggie Sanchez told the Tampa Bay Times during AAC media day. “When I first got to USF, we were in the rebuilding stages and many people wrote us off. I think what you’re seeing now is a product of hard work, a lot of people coming together and a senior-run team.”
The strength of the team is a potent offense that has the potential to break numerous records set last season. Flowers is back running the Bulls’ attack. USF, which thrived last season running Taggart’s Gulf Coast Offense, has since switched to a variation of Baylor’s prolific scheme during the Art Briles era and expects to go even faster by snapping the ball every 12 to 15 seconds. Flowers, a potential Heisman candidate, said he’s fired up by how much the offense has improved since last season.
Weaknesses: Sanchez is an ideal leader on the defensive side of the ball, but the group has the most room to improve. The Bulls return just four starters on defense and the lineup is expected to be challenged by Strong, who has spent his entire career building hard-nosed, tough defensive units. With extensive talent on the offensive side of the ball, the defense will likely dictate whether the Bulls earn the first conference title in school history.
Outlook: Strong, Flowers and the rest of the Bulls know they will be targeted by AAC teams eager to knock off the team projected to win the league title. While the players were thrilled by an 11-win season, the inability to win a conference title leaves many of the veteran USF players highly motivated to realize expectations and win big this season. While he took over a talented and deep squad, Strong and his staff should have no trouble keeping the roster stocked thanks to the former long-time UF defensive coordinator’s strong recruiting ties in the state of Florida.