Year Of The Bull Became Year Of the Bull’s Eye

We’ve long since said good bye to those Horatio Alger and “Little Engine That Could” references to USF football. Was it barely a month ago that the Bulls were undefeated, ranked second in the BCS and the talk of this and many other towns?

What happened? Were they, as some skeptical pundits had been smugly predicting, finally “exposed” for the gate-crashing pretenders they were?

Not really.

A couple of points.

In the parity round-robin that is today’s college football rankings, USF is as good – and as vulnerable – as most of the brand name schools: the South Carolinas, Alabamas and Penn States. It is arguably better than the Georgia Techs, Miamis and North Carolina States. It is much better than the Nebraskas, Minnesotas and Notre Dames. And it has beaten the West Virginias, Auburns and North Carolinas.

The Bulls are a major player, and that won’t change. They are here to stay. And the top deck at Raymond James Stadium will be in play more often than not for USF games from here on out.

As the new grid kid on the block, they surprised most outsiders with their early results and talent level – and their seemingly instant inclusion among college football’s elite. But sheer ability wasn’t enough, as it turned out, to trump growing pains. The kind that lose you games you should win.

USF’s problem has been composure. Make that lack of. When the Bulls were not expected to win, they played with abandon – and won. Think: Pittsburgh, Louisville and West Virginia in the past few years. They were having fun – an underdog’s exemption from stress and nerves. Overtime at Auburn, at night, in front of 85,000 heavily imbibed Tiger faithful – what pressure?

But with the Bull’s eye of national recognition, USF has been playing not to lose. Not to lose the game, not to lose that exalted ranking. Not to lose to underdogs.

And it’s a top-down issue. Questionable play-calling, clock management and sideline deportment were signs of a team wound too tight. There was an increase in dropped-passes, missed assignments and poor decision-making. Penalties attributed to lack of discipline and concentration rose. A few key injuries hardly helped.

In unprecedented fashion, USF had fast-forwarded from a nobody to a major college force. But what they haven’t done yet is make the transition from the hunter to the hunted. That’s the part that does take seasoning.

And may this be the final season for that. Because after this year, the grace period accorded a quintessential upstart ends. Lack of composure will be unkindly labeled “choking.”

It comes with the territory – talent, success and the expectation of more success.

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