I put South Florida atop my way-too-early 2011 Big East power rankings this month. Do the Bulls deserve such hype? Let's examine some of the factors that determine how much offseason buzz USF should garner.
2010 finish: The Bulls won five of their last seven games, including solid wins against Miami and Clemson away from home. That's the kind of finish that gets people talking about a program heading into the following season.
Coaching: It's often a good bet that teams will improve in their second year under a new coach, as they become fully familiar with the new system. Skip Holtz has won everywhere he's been, and his staff has not suffered any defections in the offseason. Given that he came in under difficult circumstances last January and installed a different type of offense, there's every reason to suspect progress in Year 2.
Schedule: South Florida has only one road nonconference game, though it's a doozy. The Bulls open the season at Notre Dame, a team that will draw some considerable offseason buzz for many of the same reasons. A win there would put the program in the spotlight. The next three out-of-league games at home against Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP shouldn't pose too many threats. A Nov. 26 home date against Miami will be interesting as the Hurricanes will be looking for revenge and playing under a first-year coach. All in all, it's a manageable schedule with a couple of opportunities for marquee wins.
The drawback is that USF has four away games in Big East play and only three at home in 2011.
Returning players: The Bulls return just 10 starters (four on offense, six on defense) from their Meineke Car Care Bowl lineup, which is a small number for a buzz team. But while many seniors leave, the team still has a lot of returning players who saw valuable time.
The Bulls will have to replace three starting offensive linemen and three of the four starting defensive linemen, along with their leading rusher and receiver and top defensive back (Mistral Raymond). But they were deep on defense and have ready-made replacements up front with guys like Ryne Giddins, Julius Forte and Patrick Hampton. Finding someone to take over Terrell McClain's run-stuffing role might be the most difficult task.
Dontavia Bogan is gone, but A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin return from injury, and the Bulls will hope players like Evan Landi, Lindsey Lamar and Terrence Mitchell evolve as playmakers. Mo Plancher led the team in rushing but operated in a tandem with Demetris Murray, who is back. Colorado transfer Darrell Scott and Auburn transfer Dontae Aycock become eligible and should add to the running game.
Once again, the fortunes of the team might rest on quarterback play. B.J. Daniels looked very good in the bowl game, and he'll have Bobby Eveld to push him all offseason. Daniels will be the most experienced quarterback in the Big East in career starts in 2011, for what that's worth.
Conclusion: South Florida has a lot of factors you like to see when determining a buzz team. More returning starters, especially on the offensive line, would help, and there are several players who need to take a step forward in the offseason. Is Daniels the guy we saw in the bowl game or the one who struggled much of the season? Overall, I think USF deserves heavy consideration as one of the league favorites in 2011, but the conference will have many contenders.
What do you think?