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) them.

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 become anemic.

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.

By 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 Bird Projections).

After 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.