by Todd Helmick
September 10, 2007
The times they are a changin'. The South
Florida Bull’s 23-20 overtime road win over the
then-No.13 Auburn Tigers is more proof that this team
on the Gulf Coast can finally lay bragging rights on
Florida State and Miami as the Sunshine State’s
second best college football team. This may have been
a dream just eight seasons ago when the Bulls first
popped onto the Division I-A scene, back when they were
loading up a schedule full of (formerly) I-AA’s
like Jacksonville State, James Madison, Liberty, Austin
Peay, and the like. This past Saturday, that dream became
a reality. Going back to last season, in the Bull’s
last four games, they have knocked off two highly ranked
teams - West Virginia and Auburn - and both wins were
on the road. These accomplishments are a far cry from
the recent résumés of either FSU or Miami
during the same stretch.
Many longtime Seminole and/or Hurricane
supporters have a difficult time acknowledging such
a fact. But the truth is that South Florida, although
not (yet) currently ranked in any of the two major Top
25 polls, is receiving more recognition than any of
the “others receiving votes” (finishing
No.26 in the AP and No.27 in the USA Today/Coaches poll
means they are officially unranked). Given the recent
woes of these two former dynasties, South Florida arguably
becomes the second best team in the Sunshine State right
now, based both on what can be seen on the field with
the naked eye and in the polls.
Like in ’06, FSU and Miami are
again mediocre football teams that will struggle to
contend for second-tier bowl destinations in places
like San Francisco and Boise. Each team’s recent
downward plight and the reasons for them are almost
identical, from offensive ineptness to coaching issues
to bad blocking to the entire system. Ahhh, their systems...both
feature slow developing plays out of the shotgun that
seem doomed from their inceptions. What should we call
these systems - the spread, the west coast or a pro-style
offense, or an evident hybrid of all three? No one is
really sure, including the players that operate (within)
But when a team relies so much on screen
passes and short dumps, it often means coaches are fearful
that their players lack the ability to attack downfield.
Maybe those coaches should instead be looking inward.
Opposing defenses then smell blood, and they can therefore
stop most everything at the line of scrimmage during
such a frenzy. “How To Negate The Great Talent
You Have - 101” is the class now being taught,
and the new coaching staffs don't seem to have changed
their lesson plans from teaching it the last few years.
In the first two games, their opponents
have outscored the Seminoles in the first half by a
combined score of 41-13, with the most recent foe being
a UAB team filled with true freshmen on its starting
lineup. Not only is the OL looking more and more like
something fielded in Durham, but now the defense is
consistently struggling to even tackle and just run
down opposing ball carriers and pass receivers.
The superior speed Bobby Bowden’s
teams once fielded has vanished. The FSU defense appears
to be running with sand in its pockets. Sprint, bench
press and vertical leap numbers have nothing to do with
team aptitude, heart, and the determination to get after
people…or the ability to get open and catch a
football, or the ability to block the right man...and
FSU doesn't reflect these qualities.
It seems worthy to ask if there might
be a talent deficiency in Tallahassee. The answer is
‘yes’ if you compare them to some of the
amazing Seminole teams of the past, but it changes to
‘no’ when you see the highly ranked recruiting
classes that Bobby always seems to attract. So where
is the disconnect between the high talent levels coming
in and the results in the win column? See, not every
player that signs gets onto the field for game day at
Florida State. Many blue chip recruits never make it
to the playing field, and it’s usually based on
either academic issues, transfers that are unhappy or
those who have been sent packing for off-the-field disputes.
Five-star players such as Brandon Warren, Callahan Bright
and Fred Rouse are not a part of the current roster.
The ones that do make it have been mistake prone and
have also been seemingly empty in the confidence department…leadership
issues ostensibly abound.
In the case of Miami, there once was
a time when QB Ken Dorsey went two full seasons while
only being sacked three times. As of 2006, the Canes
finished 96th nationally in sacks allowed, a stark contrast.
To start this season, the starting QB duties were placed
in the hands of Kirby Freeman (to many people's surprise)
after he beat out highly regarded former California
prep recruit Kyle Wright. Battle tested with mixed results,
Wright was in line to continue the QB tradition at the
“U” but has so far been riding the pine
in this, his senior season. This past weekend, Oklahoma
put a beat-down on Miami to the tune of 51-13, their
most lopsided defeat since 1998 and a sure sign the
Canes aren’t on any upper tiers.
Freeman's numbers have been less than
average, and in Norman, the typically nasty Miami defense
looked like South Florida’s D back when the Bulls
were trying to build their program. The defense is usually
superb when the DTs are dominant, but the 2007 version
has been woefully sub par this way. Like FSU, the defense
still shows a few positive signs, but the offense has
Unfortunately, the Canes seem to have
thrown the baby out with the bath water: their pro-style
offense – the one that won five national championships
- has been scrapped in favor of a delayed shotgun offense
that often runs east and west (see FSU). The single
back and I-formations are gone (for the most part).
The fullback is also a thing of the past, and the once
proud tight end position has become all but invisible.
New offensive coordinator Patrick Nix
came to Miami this season after holding the same title
at Georgia Tech for three seasons. The same Yellow Jacket
offense that usually struggled to score points with
talents like Reggie Ball, Calvin Johnson and Tashard
Choice in the lineup appears to have been transplanted
to Coral Gables. Since its debut, this new scheme has
Miami seeming very unsure of what they want to do and
how they will do it.
Both of these behemoths are walking
on eggshells, seemingly afraid to just cut loose and
play their usual progressive styles of football. In
ironic contrast, South Florida is eerily similar to
those hungry teams FSU and Miami fielded a generation
ago…aggressive and fearless. The Bulls seemingly
have a better QB in Matt Grothe than either of their
big brothers; they have a better OL for opening holes
and protecting the QB; USF also has more productive
receivers and playmakers, strong evident leadership,
and their defense is just as quick as any in the BCS
and even more determined with so much to prove.
Just as important, the coaching staff
under Jim Leavitt has this team playing in a better
system, one where team chemistry exists and is much
more valued. The Bulls practice a system that is built
around their strengths and is not afraid to attack downfield.
They also attack at the line of scrimmage when getting
after the opposing QB. With their home in Tampa situated
about half way between the state capital and Coral Gables,
it’s no wonder South Florida has learned so much
from each about how to win.
now, we all know that the state of Florida is a hotbed
for high school athletes…this is no longer a secret.
On a Bull's roster that contains 109 players, with only
ten of them coming from outside of their home state(s),
one can see how high the base talent level here has
become. Surely, the talent and demand to sign up and
play for Jim Leavitt is only going to increase after
this historical win over Auburn. Granted, this Auburn
team is not as good as the one that beat the National
Champion Florida Gators on the very same field a year
ago, but calling this game an upset isn’t such
a reach to those of us who already knew of USF’s
potential (they were our No. 25 preseason team as predicted
back in November - see Early
reading this, many of you may still think that the Bulls
could not compete on the same field with Miami or FSU,
but you would be mistaken. On a neutral field, USF would
realistically be favored over both at this point of
the early season. Moreover, they might only have to
finish over .500 to make their case. For those that
believe this may be just a once in a lifetime season
for the Bulls, you would be making another mistake.
With Grothe still improving and just a sophomore, this
team has yet to peak. There is another team in the race
for Sunshine State supremacy, and they are now better
than all but one.