The South Florida Bulls entered the offseason with momentum after escaping the Birmingham Bowl with a 46-39 overtime victory over South Carolina, which stretched their winning streak to five and pushed their final record to 11-2 overall. USF was 7-1 in conference play, with only a 46-30 loss to Temple standing between them and the American Athletic Conference Championship Game.
After such a strong finish last year, the Bulls enter the new season with a new head coach – Charlie Strong – and new expectations as the heavy favorite to win the AAC. Ranked No. 19 in the preseason AP Top 25 (the only Group of 5 team in the poll), South Florida has the inside track to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
But the Bulls face an early test with an August kickoff at San Jose State. The Spartans don’t have expectations nearly as high as USF after posting a 4-8 record last season, but a 2,800-mile flight from Tampa to the Bay Area is a great equalizer. Plus, with a veteran offensive line, quality defensive playmakers and new head coach Brent Brennan to inject new life into the program; San Jose State could surprise the Mountain West in 2017. A Week 1 upset would be a great first impression for Brennan – and a terrible one for Strong.
South Florida at San Jose State
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: South Florida -21.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New Head Coaches
Charlie Strong’s story is well known. The former head coach at Louisville and Texas, Strong built the Cardinals into a consistent winner but couldn’t win enough in Austin. After three years of rumor and speculation fueled by three straight seven-loss seasons, the Longhorns dismissed him. However, USF head coach Willie Taggart left Tampa for Oregon. Back in familiar territory (Strong spent 15 years as an assistant with the Florida Gators), Strong is in the perfect place to repair his reputation.
New Spartans head coach Brent Brennan has kept a lower profile in recent years. A former San Jose State assistant under Dick Tomey and Mike MacIntyre, Brennan earned his first head coaching gig after spending the last six seasons as an assistant at Oregon State.
2. A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
Simply put, Quinton Flowers is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the nation. Flowers threw for 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns with only seven interceptions last season and added 1,530 yards and 18 TDs on the ground to earn AAC Player of the Year honors. Flowers also has plenty of weapons at his disposal with explosive wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling, talented receiver Tyre McCants and tight end Mitchell Wilcox, who has an NFL future.
On the flip side, the Spartans have a huge question mark behind center. Six quarterbacks entered fall camp to compete for the stating spot in Brennan’s up-tempo offense, with sophomore Josh Love, junior Michael Carrillo and freshman Montel Aaron the top candidates and a couple of true freshmen also in the mix. Love has the edge in experience after starting once last season. He threw for 392 yards and two touchdowns with five interceptions overall.
Fortunately, whoever starts at QB will have the benefit of playing behind a San Jose State offensive line with a combined 125 career starts to its credit – more than any other unit in FBS.
3. Defensive Playmakers
San Jose State isn’t likely to bottle up Flowers and the Bulls completely, but the Spartans are capable of making a big defensive play or two. Cornerback Andre Chachere is an NFL prospect that intercepted four passes and broke up 14 others last season. Chachere was an All-Mountain West selection last season.
Of course, the Bulls have several defensive playmakers as well. Cornerback Deatrick Nichols is just as talented as Chachere, and similarly coveted by NFL talent evaluators. Nichols picked off four passes in 2016 as well. Also, linebacker Auggie Sanchez was a tackling machine in 2016. One of nine returning starters on defense, Sanchez racked up 120 total stops.
USF is a heavy favorite, and for good reason. The gap between the two quarterbacks is huge, and Flowers gives South Florida a big edge in playmaking ability. The Bulls are the more talented team, and hold an advantage in every position group other than offensive line.
Nevertheless, funny things can happen in Week 1, and it’s never easy for a college football team to travel all the way across the country and win. Expect San Jose State to keep the game close early, but for USF to pull away in the second half and take its first step toward a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Prediction: South Florida 45, San Jose State 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Charlie Strong photo courtesy of @USFFootball)