The State of the Program Entering I-A
The football history at the University of South Florida extends less than two decades back. Jim Leavitt, the defensive coordinator under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, had come to Tampa in 1997 to create a program from scratch. They came onto the NCAA scene as a I-AA independent that season, playing their first year in soon-to-be-demolished Tampa Stadium, and went 5-6 in their inaugural campaign.
The Bulls would improve to 8-3 in 1998, narrowly missing out on a selection to the I-AA playoffs. USF would post identical 7-4 records in 1999 and 2000, failing both times to reach the postseason.
They would fail to appear in a single I-AA bracket during their four years at the lower level, the Bulls remaining independent during that quadrennial. They would prove to be a good-but-not-great I-AA team at the turn of the century.
That was the sum total of the program’s pedigree as the NCAA accepted their petition to rise to the I-A ranks for the 2001 season. Leavitt’s first four seasons in Tampa would result in a .614 winning percentage (27-17), the team now sharing freshly-built Raymond James Stadium with the NFL’s Buccaneers. Whether that respectable winning percentage would last at the I-A level, though, remained to be seen as South Florida opened a new millennium in a time of transition.
The First Season
South Florida’s new life as a I-A school began on the penultimate day of August, 2001, on a road trip to DeKalb to face Northern Illinois. Against the Huskies, USF would keep the game close but ultimately fall 20-17. September yielded better results immediately, as the Bulls got their first I-A win 35-26 on a visit to Pittsburgh.
A 17-9 loss at Memphis on September 22 knocked USF to 1-2 on the season, but they would rebound the following Saturday by beating eventual Sun Belt champion North Texas 28-10 at home. As they entered October, the Bulls were 2-2 and playing competitively in every contest.
A trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium on the opening weekend of October ended in South Florida’s most lopsided defeat of the season, as Utah knocked off the Bulls 52-21. Making the long flight home, USF had no way of knowing that this low point in their season would be their last taste of defeat in 2001.
A win over fellow I-A newcomer Connecticut returned South Florida to .500 in the standings. After home victories over a pair of I-AA opponents, Southern Utah (42-12) and Liberty (68-37), Leavitt’s Bulls entered the final month of the regular season with a 5-3 record.
The winning streak extended to four games on November 3, as USF knocked off a hapless Houston team in the midst of an 0-11 season. I-AA Western Illinois was fodder for the Bulls the next weekend, their visit to Tampa ending in a 48-17 beatdown. The season would end with South Florida’s sixth straight victory, as Utah State left Florida reeling from a 34-13 defeat. Proving resilient after an up-and-down first month of the season, the Bulls finished their initial year in the I-A ranks at 8-3 but would fail to earn a bowl berth thanks to three of those victories coming against I-AA opposition.
How Have They Fared Since?
South Florida would improve upon their inaugural campaign with a 9-2 record in 2002. Their only defeats would come against Big XII champion Oklahoma and SEC West championship-game representative Arkansas (due to sanctions against Alabama), though once again they would fail to garner enough attention from bowl selectors to earn an invite.
What they did earn, though, was the eye of Conference USA. In their seventh season of existence as a program at any level, the Bulls were part of a conference for the first time in their history as the 2003 kicked off. Opening the season with a loss against the Crimson Tide at Legion Field in Birmingham, USF rebounded to take two of their first three conference contests. By the end of the year, they had finished with a respectable 7-4 record and finished in a tie for third in the league standings.
2004 would be a trying season, as the Bulls posted their first losing season since their first year of existence. Falling to 3-5 in C-USA play, South Florida would finish the year 4-7 overall. Despite the regression, though, the Big East would come calling in the offseason. After the loss of Miami, the Bulls were about to become the new Florida representative of the longtime basketball league.
Their first year in their new conference saw South Florida post a winning 6-5 record. Though they would finish only third in the Big East behind West Virginia and Louisville, the Bulls were still rewarded with the school’s first ever bowl berth. Invited to face NC State at the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, USF would fall to the Wolfpack 14-0 to finish the year at .500.
Improvement continued in 2006, as USF finished the regular season 8-4. Unfortunately, their Big East rivals had also improved, putting South Florida just fourth in the standings. Nevertheless, a second straight bowl bid was forthcoming, as the Bulls prepared to face East Carolina at the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham. Their showdown against the Pirates would prove more rewarding than their previous trip to Charlotte, as Leavitt’s crew claimed their first bowl victory 24-7 to cap a nine-win season.
The breakthrough of 2006 set the stage for the zenith of South Florida football to date. A win over I-AA Elon in the season opener preceded a 26-23 upset at Auburn on September 8. After four more victories, USF found themselves ranked #2 in the nation as the BCS released their first standings of the season on October 14. Four days later, though, the Bulls would fall in a Thursday-night headliner at Rutgers, plummeting out of the national championship race as quickly as they had arrived on the scene. It was the start of a three-game losing streak that relegated USF to a tie for third in the Big East standings. They took their 9-3 record to El Paso to face another dejected national-championship hopeful, Oregon. The Ducks, with third-string redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Roper making his first college start, trounced the Bulls 56-21.
Over the next two years, USF would post two straight 7-5 regular-season campaigns. Both years ended in bowl victories, the Bulls knocking off Memphis 41-14 in the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl and Northern Illinois 27-3 in the 2010 International Bowl. But six days after the bowl victory over the Huskies in Toronto, South Florida suddenly let Leavitt go after an investigation into player abuses. Later exonerated from any fault, the school now had to move on from the only coach it had ever known.
In came Skip Holtz, the East Carolina head coach and son of former national-championship winning coach Lou. In his first year at the helm in Tampa, Holtz’s Bulls posted yet another 7-5 record to finish in a tie for fifth in the league. Their reward was another trip to Charlotte, where they would defeat Clemson 31-26 for their third straight bowl victory. But things soon turned south, as South Florida posted back-to-back losing records in 2011 and 2012 for the first time in school history. With the record plummeting from 5-7 to 3-9, the school fired Holtz at the end of the 2012 season.
So the Bulls enter a new era in their retooled American Athletic Conference with their third head coach in school history. Taking over for Holtz in Tampa is Willie Taggart, the former leader at Western Kentucky. In a fertile recruiting region, the Bulls have proven capable of remaining a consistent winner. Whether or not Taggart proves to be the man to take USF to the next level, the program is a slumbering teenager that could spring up and force its way into the national picture once again.