No. 21 South Florida
South Florida, the highest-ranked Group of Five team in the HERO Sports' Top 100 College Football Rankings, begins year one of the Charlie Strong era.
Their quest for a New Year's Six bowl game will be led by 16 returning starters — most notably quarterback Quinton Flowers and linebacker Auggie Sanchez — who will navigate a very friendly schedule.
2016 Record: 11-2 (7-1, AAC)
South Florida won nine total games between 2012-14. They eclipsed that number — and the single-season program record of nine wins — in 2016 alone with 11 victories.
The Bulls had a five-game winning streak, beat two Power Five teams (Syracuse and South Carolina) and scored 62 total points in their only two losses, Florida State (55-35) and Temple (46-30). The Temple loss kept them from appearing in the AAC Championship, but the 11 wins were enough to get head coach Willie Taggart the Oregon job.
Head Coach: Charlie Strong (1st year)
Eight years after Charlie Strong left the state of Florida to become Louisville head coach, he returned to take over the Bulls. Fired at Texas after winning 16 games over three seasons, Strong becomes USF's fourth head coach in eight seasons.
"Some of the best football talent in the country is right here in the Bay Area and throughout the state of Florida," he said in December, "and I feel blessed to have the opportunity to work with the young men in the USF football program and build on the strong foundation already in place."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Quinton Flowers, RB D'Ernest Johnson, WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR Tyree McCants, TE Mitchell Wilcox, OT Marcus Norman, G Jeremi Hall, C Cameron Ruff
As much as South Florida fans want to get out in front of their skis and anoint Quinton Flowers a legitimate Heisman contender, let's pump the brakes and appreciate him for what he is — for now.
He's an elite dual-threat quarterback and the reigning AAC Player of the Year — the first USF player to earn a major conference award — after throwing for 2,812 yards and rushing for 1,530. His rushing stats (7.7 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns) were remarkable but it was his passing improvements that sent USF soaring.
But offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert — who followed Strong from Texas — isn't satisfied with the bump in completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Gilbert is tweaking Flowers' throwing motion to be more fluid.
"When we’re warming, up [Gilbert will] put his hand right on my chest and I can’t wind up and throw because that’s what I was doing," Flowers said. "Now, it’s just keep it at a 90-degree angle and release it. Everything’s falling into place just by listening to him. My release has gotten quicker. My ball location, my accuracy."
Better motion or not, Flowers can do this in the pocket:
You don't just replace running back Marlon Mack, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher who left early for the draft. However, senior all-purpose back D'Ernest Johnson will ensure minimal drop-off in the backfield.
Tight end Mitchell Wilcox earned All-AAC Second-Team honors after catching 12 passes for 278 yards and two scores as a freshman. And their second- and third-leading receivers — Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Tyree McCants — are back.
The offensive line returns three starters, including an intriguing prospect at right tackle in sophomore Marcus Norman.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Deadrin Senat, DT Bruce Hector, DE Kirk Livingstone, DE Mike Love, LB Auggie Sanchez, CB Deatrick Nichols, CB Ronnie Hoggins, S Tajee Fullwood
It's tough to hear for a defense laced with all-conference players but USF would've have gone 12-0 in the regular season if not for their defense.
"Defensively, we know that's got to be our biggest improvement," Strong said after their first preseason workout last week. "We have to improve on defense, and we have to get better, and there's no reason for us not to."
Brian Jean-Mary is the Bulls' fourth coordinator in four seasons. He inherits a unit that yielded 101 points in two losses and ranked among the nation's worst in most categories, including yards (120th) and scoring (92nd). They did, however, have 26 turnovers and 31 sacks and return nine starters — all upperclassmen.
Corner Deatrick Nichols (below) was responsible for four of those turnovers. The 5-foot-10, 189-pound senior has eight career interceptions.
"We've got a lot of older dudes, and that's the goal," said senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who has led the Bulls in tackles each of the last two seasons and has more than 300 in his career. "You see a lot of hungry guys, a lot of people working harder than they have ever worked. We're not content with what we had or what we did last year."
The front four returns all four starters. Bruce Hector and Deadrin Senat combined for 15 tackles for loss and seven sacks, while ends Kirk Livingstone and Mike Love combined for 12 and 4.5, respectively.
Notable Player Losses
RB Marlon Mack, WR Rodney Adams, OT Kofi Amichia, OG Dominique Threatt, LB Nigel Harris, S Nate Godwin
Marlon Mack and his 4,107 career yards from scrimmage are gone. One of three USF draft picks, Mack was selected by the Colts in the fourth round. The other two picks were leading receiver Rodney Adams (fifth round) and left tackle Kofi Amichia (sixth). The offense also lost all-conference guard Dominique Threatt.
Defensively, linebacker Nigel Harris is gone after registering 78 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss, as is safety Nate Godwin, who had 249 career tackles and 13 passes defended.
Notable Player Additions
WR Kevaughn Dingle, S Craig Watts, S Naytron Culpepper
With 16 returning starters and a dozen other players with significant experience, there won't be many new faces in 2017. Nonetheless, keep an eye on three youngsters that could make an impact in 2017 and be in line for huge roles in 2018.
Kevaughn Dingle is a true freshman receiver from Miami who passed on a pile of Power Five offers. Naytron Culpepper is also a true freshman that's competing with redshirt freshman Craig Watts for snaps in the secondary.
South Florida's first-half schedule is an odd one. First, they travel 3,000 miles for an early opener at San Jose State on Aug. 26. Three weeks later they host Illinois on a Friday night, and a week later host Temple on Thursday night.
|Saturday, Aug. 26||at San Jose State|
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Stony Brook|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at UConn|
|Friday, Sept. 15||vs. Illinois|
|Thursday, Sept. 21||vs. Temple|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at East Carolina|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. UMass|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Tulane|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Cincinnati|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Houston|
|Thursday, Nov. 16||vs. Tulsa|
|Friday, Nov. 24||at UCF|