USF and UTM: This could get ugly

By Darrell Laurant  |   Wednesday, August 27, 2008  |  Comments( 1 )

South Florida Bulls
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The University of South Florida football team got a taste of the high life last season -- as high as No. 2 in The Associated Press poll at one point.

The Bulls reached that rarefied altitude after winning their first six 2007 games (including stunning victories over West Virginia and Auburn) and found themselves just one rung removed from the pinnacle of their sport. Apparently, the view from there unnerved them, because Jim Leavitt's gang promptly lost to Rutgers, Connecticut and Cincinnati and tumbled out of the rankings all together.

After rebounding with convincing routs of Syracuse and Louisville and a successful shootout with Pitt, climbing back to No. 21 and earning a Sun Bowl bid, the Bulls then took it on the chin from unranked Oregon, 56-21.

So incentives remain from last season, and so do 10 of 11 offensive starters and most of the defense -- all of which does not bode well for Saturday's opening opponent, the University of Tennessee-Martin (7 p.m., Raymond James Stadium).

"This is a reward for our players," said Skyhawks coach James Simpson.

Could be he didn't tell them about George Selvie, who had 14.5 sacks and over 30 tackles for loss last season and is considered the most lethal pass rusher in the college game since Elvis Dumervil (and, before him, Dwight Freeney). Or about Tyrone McKenzie, who had 121 tackles last season. Or quarterback Matt Grothe, a Heisman Trophy candidate.

True, the Bulls lost Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, generally considered the top cornerback duo in the country, but Tyller Roberts and Jerome Murphy appear to be more-than-adequate replacements. Moreover, Jenkins and Williams had little to do with the fact that USF allowed only eight rushing touchdowns all last season.

UTM quarterback Cade Thompson has had his own glimpse of the big time, as well, spending a year at the University of South Carolina and performing nicely in the Garnet & Black game in 2006. A native of Marysville, Tenn., he was compelled by a lack of playing time and perhaps a bit of homesickness to join the Ohio Valley Conference Skyhawks, throwing for over 1,000 yards (and only three interceptions) last season. His two top receivers, Roren Thomas and Dexter Akbar, return, but last year's leading rusher is gone.

USF originally intended to plug leading McKenzie into the middle linebacker spot to replace Ben Moffitt, but junior college transfer Kion Wilson performed so well there in preseason that McKenzie finally stayed where he was.

One mild surprise from the depth chart had human Humvee Ben Williams (5-foot-7, 200 pounds) climbing to the top of the running back chart over the more publicized Mike Ford. Leavitt says Ford will still get his touches, though, as will a trio of talented backups.

The Bulls started sluggishly against Elon in last season's opener, winning just 28-13. This one could be a lot uglier -- although its offense topped the OVC last season, UT-Martin also surrendered more than 30 points a game. Grothe and friends could produce that in a half.

Still, James Simpson appeared to have all this in perspective.

"Obviously, this is a tremendous financial opportunity for our school," he said.

And, oh yes, his team has seen the documentary about Appalachian State and Michigan.

It won't matter.

Realfootball365 prediction: USF 52, UT-Martin 10.
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