Why South Florida, a Navy opponent in 2016, could be a mystery

Last week, we considered the question of how the Cincinnati Bearcats -- not a Navy opponent in 2016 -- would affect the larger landscape of the American Athletic Conference. No Cincinnati game raised more of an eyebrow than a 65-27 loss. We examine the team which trounced UC in this week's article.

51-3.

NFL fans recognize that score as the final tally in the 1990 season's AFC Championship Game, played in January of 1991. The Buffalo Bills reached their first Super Bowl by obliterating the Los Angeles Raiders.

Fans of American Athletic Conference football, however, will identify that score as the halftime lead for the South Florida Bulls against the Cincinnati Bearcats on Friday, November 20. 

Before the 2015 AAC season began, Cincinnati was the team most people expected to win the East. It is true that by the time the Bearcats trudged into Tampa for that Friday night contest, the Temple Owls called the shots in the division. Cincinnati had receded from public view. The idea that South Florida would beat Cincy was more than reasonable. USF had knocked off Temple the week before, throttling the Owls' defense in a 44-23 romp. 

Yet, despite all the realities mentioned in the paragraph above, no one could have imagined the preseason AAC East favorite being that bad... and South Florida being that good. 

South Florida started its season 1-3. South Florida got thumped -- yes, thumped -- by Maryland, 35-17. The Bulls' offense was pedestrian through the first four games of the season. In games five through seven, USF averaged over 35 points, but the roster of opponents -- Syracuse, Connecticut and SMU -- had something to do with that three-game winning streak. When Navy limited USF's offense to 17 points and East Carolina held the Bulls to 22 the following week, South Florida was an average team with an average offense, sitting at 5-4 and not on the doorstep of doing anything remarkable before the end of the 2015 regular season.

Then came the 44-point outburst against a Temple defense which flummoxed Notre Dame at home and contained Houston on the road. The game was a masterclass for South Florida, but also Temple's worst defensive showing of the entire 2015 campaign. Skeptics will say that Temple had an off day, but anyone who believes in the Bulls and head coach Willie Taggart will claim that the Bulls -- the team Taggart hoped to build in Tampa -- emerged in full on that night.

The Cincinnati game and that 51-3 first half flowed from the onslaught against the Owls six days before.

What was an average 5-4 season with a ho-hum offense became an 8-4 regular season marked by a substantial upward trajectory in early December. It's true that South Florida lost its bowl game to Western Kentucky -- robbed of the freight-train-level momentum the team possessed on Thanksgiving weekend -- but it's quite possible the Bulls experienced the awakening they've sought ever since Jim Leavitt (who led the program to a No. 2 ranking in the famously chaotic 2007 college football season) was forced out.

We arrive at the moment of uncertainty -- the moment of questioning -- for South Florida football. Accordingly, Navy fans and coaches must wonder what kind of team they'll face in Tampa this October.

Last week, we wondered if Cincinnati was that bad against USF. This week, we have to wonder if USF was that good. However, another question is even more specific to the Bulls this season: Was their November surge in 2015 something contained to that campaign, or will it spill over into this season?

In the college game and the pros, we see it all the time: A team struggles for half or two-thirds of the season. With the pressure off and the focus of the nation elsewhere, that team plays without a burden -- knowing it has nothing to lose -- and finishes the season with a flourish. In the NFL, it's harder to put much stock in the team which starts 5-7 and then goes on a four-game winning streak in December to finish 9-7. Not playing with playoff pressure is hard to ignore and dismiss as a relevant consideration in an NFL season. In college, it's easier to trust a late-season surge when the players aren't upperclassmen or otherwise bound for the pros. Young players, accumulating snaps and real-world experience, learn how to play together. They can carry enthusiasm and mutual trust into the following spring ball sessions, the following summer training camp, and the next regular season.

Maybe South Florida achieved this transformation... but maybe the Bulls took advantage of a Temple team making a long commute (and which had a multi-game cushion in the AAC East at the time of kickoff), and a Cincinnati team which was ripe for the taking.

 Navy should naturally expect USF's best version to emerge in October, but from a more distant vantage point before the Fourth of July, it's a mystery as to how the Bulls will run this autumn. The answer to that mystery will shape Navy's 2016 season.


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