South Florida (6-6, 4-3 Big East) ended its first season in the Big East Conference in a tie for third place with Rutgers and earned a spot in the Meineke Car Care bowl, the program's first postseason appearance.
But things could have been a whole lot better for the Bulls.
With two games to go in the regular season, South Florida was still in the hunt for the Big East title and a spot in a Bowl Championship Series game. Losses to Connecticut and West Virginia squashed that dream and a disappointing 14-0 bowl defeat to North Carolina State, the Bulls' first shutout loss the program's nine-year history, assured South Florida's season ended on a down note.
"It's disappointing to have a big zero on the scoreboard," said senior OL Chris Carothers.
But don't expect South Florida to put up too many more donuts in the future.
With Jim Leavitt locked into a new contract that will keep the popular coach in Tampa until 2012 and with a slew of talented, young players on the roster, things are sure to improve at South Florida over the next couple of seasons.
"We're in the hunt, I promise you," Leavitt said a few days after the bowl defeat. "I know we haven't been around the block that long -- we've been around enough -- we're in the hunt. We're not that far away. We have 70 freshmen and sophomores, a pretty young team. We have a chance to build this program. As long as we keep battling, we have a shot."
South Florida must replace five starters on an offense that averaged 25.1 points per game in the regular season and ranked 74th in the nation in total offense. The biggest loss is senior RB Andre Hall, who leaves as the program's all-time leading rusher after racking up 2,731 yards in only two seasons.
The defense loses four starters, including impact players such as defensive ends Jon Simmons and Terrence Royal, defensive tackle Tim Jones, and stronjg safety Johnnie Jones. Junior linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who many expect to declare for the NFL draft, also might need to be replaced.
Still, there is a lot to look forward to next year. Redshirt freshman quarterback Carlton Hill came on late in the season and saw action in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Sophomore wide receivers Jackie Chambers, Johnny Peyton, and Amarri Jackson showed flashes of potential, while freshman running back Ricky Ponton showed signs that he can fill Hall's shoes in 2006.
The defense, which finished 19th in the nation in total defense, should be strong with junior linebackers Ben Moffitt and Patrick St. Louis returning for their senior seasons.
"I'm leaving the team in good hands," said Hall, who led the Big East in rushing with 1,374 yards. "Coach Leavitt and the rest of the coaching staff will take over and do what they have to do. I know that they will be back (to a bowl game). I won't be surprised if they are in a BCS bowl."
Notes and Quotes:
GAME OF THE YEAR: South Florida pulled off one of the upsets of the season Sept. 24 when the Bulls stunned the nation by beating No. 9 Louisville, 45-14. The victory improved the Bulls to 3-1, paving the way for them to finish in third place in their first season in the Big East and earn a trip to the first bowl game in program history.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RB Andre Hall -- In many ways, the senior was the Bulls' offense in 2005. Hall led South Florida with 1,374 yards rushing and also led the Bulls with 26 receptions for 321 yards. Without Hall, the Bulls would have never finished 6-6 or earned the program's first bowl bid.
RAPID REVIEW: South Florida opened the season with a loss at Penn State and then won two straight nonconference games before serving notice that the Bulls were for real with a 45-14 win over Louisville that improved South Florida to 3-1. South Florida went 3-4 the rest of the way with wins over Rutgers, Syracuse, and Cincinnati and finished 6-5 to earn a spot in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, where South Florida lost, 14-0, to North Carolina State.
FAST FORWARD: South Florida was one of the youngest teams in the Big East this season, so watch out for the Bulls in 2006 when they are scheduled to return seven starters on defense and six more on offense. The first priority is to square away the QB position, where junior Pat Julmiste struggled as the starter before splitting time late in the year with promising freshman Carlton Hill.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The sky's the limit for the young guys. I know there's nothing but greater things ahead for those guys." -- South Florida DE Terrence Royal on a young Bulls team that is scheduled to return 13 starters.
Strategy and Personnel:
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2006: RB Ricky Ponton -- The freshman finished second on the team with 373 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns. The speedy Ponton showed flashes of potential and should have little trouble filling in for senior Andre Hall, who leaves USF as the Bulls all-time leading rusher.
WR Jackie Chambers -- The sophomore led all Bulls wide receivers with 290 yards receiving on 21 catches. Chambers and classmates Amarri Jackson, who led the receiving corps with 23 catches, and Johnny Peyton, who led the team with three receiving touchdowns, give South Florida a solid nucleus of young pass catchers.
CANDIDATES FOR THE NEXT LEVEL:
--RB Andre Hall rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons at South Florida. Hall (5-10, 205) isn't a big back, but he's fast, tough, and knows how to use his speed to exploit seams in a defense. Hall also has very good hands. He led South Florida with 26 receptions.
--DE Terrence Royal led South Florida defensive lineman in tackles each of the last two seasons, producing 40 in 2004 and 47 in 2005. Royal (6-3 and 255) also finished tied for second in the Big East with 10 sacks and forced a team-high four fumbles. That's outstanding production from a player who spent most of the fall fighting through double-teams.
ROSTER REPORT: South Florida stayed fairly healthy throughout the 2005 season. The Bulls lost sophomore CB A.J. Brandt (knee) early to a season-ending injury. FS Danny Verpaele (foot) also missed significant time. Those injuries opened the door for freshman FS Carlton Williams and sophomore CB Trae Williams to see extended action in the secondary. Three QBs played significant minutes for USF this fall: Junior Pat Julmiste, sophomore Courtney Denson, who started the season against Penn State before being shifted to WR later in the year, and freshman Carlton Hill. Looking forward, it appears Julmiste and Hill, who saw significant playing time against West Virginia and NC State, will battle for the starting job in 2006. Julmiste, a two-year starter who was an unimpressive 8-for-25 for 91 yards with an interception in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, realizes the job is up for grabs. "I need to get my junk together," he said. "If I don't do it by two-a-days next spring, you'll see a different quarterback in there."