The Bulls rank No. 24 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
Led by dynamic senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, USF is Athlon’s projected top team from the American Athletic Conference and from the Group of 5 leagues. Flowers will have to handle more of the workload on offense after the departure of running back Marlon Mack to the NFL, but he’s more than capable after a standout junior campaign. New coach Charlie Strong is tasked with improving a defense that surrendered 31.6 points per game last year. The Bulls should be favored in all 12 regular season games. Can USF finish the year with an unbeaten record and challenge for a playoff berth?
Previewing USF Football’s Offense for 2017
Senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, a poor man’s Lamar Jackson, should get some Heisman Trophy support if he continues on his upward trajectory. Last season, Flowers was the American Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year when he rushed for 1,530 yards, the fourth-highest total ever by a FBS quarterback, and 18 touchdowns.
“Quinton will only build on what he did last season,’’ says first-year South Florida coach Charlie Strong, who promises an up-tempo offensive style that suits Flowers’ strengths. “He’s hungry to get better and he’s providing a ton of leadership out there.’’
Flowers became a much-improved passer last season (62.5 completion percentage, 24 touchdowns, just seven interceptions), and part of the reason is a deep, talented receiving corps. Junior Tyre McCants, who had 25 catches, and senior Marquez Valdes-Scantling (22 catches) provide speedy options. Sophomore Darnell Salomon has the potential to blossom after limited duty last year. Also look for the big-play tight ends — sophomore Mitchell Wilcox and junior Elkanah Dillon, who combined for a 22.8-yard receiving average on 20 catches — to offer a diversion.
The backfield took a hit when Marlon Mack, a three-time first-team All-AAC running back who had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons and a South Florida career record of 3,609 yards, skipped his senior season for the NFL Draft. But Strong expressed confidence in the returning backs, particularly do-everything senior D’Ernest Johnson, who rushed for 543 yards and had 28 receptions while being the team’s best return man and scoring 14 total touchdowns.
Two starters must be replaced on the offensive line, where center Cameron Ruff and guard Jeremi Hall are expected to be the anchors.
Previewing USF Football’s Defense for 2017
The Bulls return seven of their top nine tacklers from a defense that struggled in 2016, ranking 120th nationally with 482.0 yards allowed per game. Overall, the tackling was horrendous. Brian Jean-Mary, the new defensive coordinator, says he will employ multiple looks, including a 3-3-5 alignment, which will utilize one deep free safety and a strong safety closer to the box. The secondary is stocked with experience, including cornerback Deatrick Nichols, a big-play senior who has 27 career starts. The Bulls’ defensive line also has experience but as a group did not get enough pressure on the quarterback last season.
Middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who ranks second nationally in career tackles among active players (303), is the leader who calls alignments and audibles. He will adjust to his fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons.
Previewing USF Football’s Specialists for 2017
With the Bulls scoring a program-record 77 TDs, some pressure was relieved from junior placekicker Emilio Nadelman, who made all seven of his field goal attempts. Senior punter Jonathan Hernandez developed into a formidable weapon with a 41.2-yard average, 25 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and 13 that surpassed 50 yards. Johnson led the league with a 11.8-yard average on punt returns.
Fired from Texas, Strong quickly landed at South Florida after Willie Taggart bolted for Oregon. The Bulls, 11–2 last season and returning 16 starters, could be favored to win all of their games. Coming off the school’s first-ever season-ending top-20 national ranking and seeking the first league title in the program’s history, they are a consensus pick to capture the AAC championship.
“I see no ceiling on what this program can accomplish,’’ Strong says.
If South Florida reaches its potential, lifts a conference-title trophy and plays in a major bowl game, it will have soared to heights that seemed unimaginable just a few seasons ago.
National Ranking: 24
American Athletic East Division Prediction: 1
Don't forget to check out Athlon Sports' entire college football Top 25.