Coach Charlie Strong is well aware of the expectations in his first season at USF.
With 18 starters back from an 11-win team, including one of the top dual threat quarterbacks in the country, the 19th-ranked Bulls have goals higher than simply winning the American Athletic Conference title and playing in the postseason.
A spot in one of the College Football Playoff bowls and maybe even consideration for the ultimate prize, one of the four playoff slots, is more to their thinking as the Bulls begin their 21st season of football Saturday at San Jose State.
Strong doesn’t want his players to ignore the high hopes but to handle those expectations with maturity. Avoiding complacency is a major objective.
“Our players with them having the success they had last season and the expectations where they are right now, I told them that we have to welcome those expectations,” he said. “But we have to be smart about it as well.”
And that means not taking for granted an opponent like San Jose State.
The Spartans are coming off a 4-8 season with a coach, Brent Brennan, who goes into his first season with a veteran defense and offensive line to work with but several questions at the skill positions on offense.
That includes quarterback, where sophomore Josh Love is the only one of four competitors who has appeared in a college game. He made one start as a freshman and threw four of his five interceptions on the season in that outing.
In other words, he is the complete opposite of USF senior Quinton Flowers, who rushed for a team-best 1,530 yards and passed for 2,807 in 2016. His quarterback rating of 86.3 was actually a couple of points higher than Louisville’s Heisman-winning Lamar Jackson.
Flowers is the triggerman in an offense that rushed and passed for over 511 yards a game in 2016, 11th best in the country. He loses his top running back (Marlon Mack) and top receiver (Rodney Adams) but returns enough firepower and front-line strength to make the Bulls one of the most productive units in the country again.
Among receivers back are Tyre McCants, who is healthy after catching 25 balls last season, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who had five touchdown catches among his 22 receptions last year. Another receiver, however, Ryeshene Bronson (30 career receptions) likely will miss the game because of a shoulder injury.
Running back is solid with D’Ernest Johnson (543 rushing yards last year) looks to step in for Mack, and Darius Tice, whose 2016 season was cut short by a broken ankle, to carry the majority of the work.
But if the Bulls are to live up to expectations, they are going to have to shore up a defense that allowed opponents an average of 482 yards a game.
They have the makings for success with a solid linebacking corps headed by senior Auggie Sanchez and an experienced and talented secondary. They also are deeper at the tackle spots up front with returning starters Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector, which should help bolster a run defense that was shredded for 196.5 yards a game.
New line coach Sean Cronin is working a five-man rotation upfront to give Senat and Hector more opportunity to go full bore all the time.
“I don’t expect them to play like normal,” Cronin said. “When you turn on the film, I don’t want them to look like every D-lineman. I want them to look like they have exceptional effort.”
The key to success for the unit, however, will come down to the basics.
“We’ve got to be able to tackle well,” Strong said. “We have to be able to tackle. It’s going to come back to gap control, just sitting in your gaps and doing your job. We cannot give up the deep ball. We cannot allow explosion plays. We just cannot allow that to happen.
“Plus whenever we get them in the red zone, we have to be able to win in the red zone. Turnovers are always critical. You’re looking to get turnovers on defense. There are just so many things. When you talk bout our plan to win, you want to go play great defense. In order to play great defense, you have to be able to tackle well and can’t give up explosion plays.”