Every year, we are told things are going to be different in Tampa.
Every year, we are told this is going to be the season.
Every year, people buy in.
But nothing changes, not at USF. This team has, quite frankly, become the biggest tease in the Big East. The Bulls raise hopes and expectations every year, only to cruelly dash them with uninspired play. This year, they were the preseason choice to finish No. 2 in the league. Right now, they are sitting at 2-4 and 0-2 in conference.
Last year, they were picked to finish third. They ended up last.
What sets this season apart, however, is the way in which this team has disappointed. Because it has become very clear the USF program has taken a step back. The growing exasperation in Tampa has pointed squarely to coach Skip Holtz, who now has a losing record (15-16) in his third season at the helm.
It is very clear why fans are getting antsy.
USF lost its first game as a Big East member to a non-BCS team, falling to Ball State last month. Things got worse when it lost to Temple this past weekend.
The Bulls are in the middle of their second four-game losing streak in as many seasons. Those are the longest losing streaks in school history.
USF has lost 10 of its past 11 Big East games, dating back to the end of the 2010 season. Holtz has gone 4-12 in Big East play, including its worst performance last year (1-6).
USF snapped its six-year bowl streak when it finished 5-7 last season.
There is growing sentiment in Tampa that Holtz is on the hot seat. If you judge him on wins and losses, his record is unacceptable, particularly at a program that has so much talent and so many resources. But he just received a contract extension and his buyout is prohibitive.
The bigger question is: Why does this keep happening at USF?
"We’ve built very high expectations for this program so from understanding why everybody’s disappointed, frustrated, exasperated, I certainly understand," Holtz said Monday. "I understand everybody’s frustration. We have our own frustrations on the inside. Everybody’s scratching their heads, ‘Saying how does this happen?’ For us, the biggest thing is there’s some things we have to improve on offensively and defensively. But I think we’re close. I don’t think this s a thing where thinking we’re getting blown out of the stadium and have to start from scratch."
Holtz pointed first to the turnover problem. The Bulls are one of the worst teams in the nation in turnover margin, at minus-11. They have yet to gain an interception, and have only recovered four fumbles in six games. Their defense, which was supposed to be dominant up front, ranks No. 7 in the Big East in total defense and No. 7 in rushing defense. They have now given up over 180 yards on the ground three times this season.
Offensively, there has been little production out of the run game and way too many mistakes and inconsistency. We see the tangible things that must be corrected. But the intangibles -- the lack of enthusiasm and emotion, the complete apathy they play with against teams they should beat -- that is much more alarming. That is nothing new at USF, mind you. These players never have trouble getting up for Florida State or Miami or Notre Dame. USF owns wins against all three programs.
But the Bulls have a much harder time rising to the challenges of Big East play. Rutgers, for example, is 6-2 all time against the Bulls. Temple is now 1-0.
For his part, Holtz has accepted responsibility for what has happened the past two years. When asked to evaluate his own job performance, Holtz said, "Right now we haven’t gotten it done, I can’t argue that point. You want to win. That’s what you play in the game for. We’ve been competitive, and we’ve been in close games but that doesn’t count for a lot. It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating, but if you have four, five bad days of work you don’t go in for the rest of the year saying I’m just going to work for pride. You just roll your sleeves up and compete."
"We had our team meeting yesterday," Holtz said. "Nobody is giggles and laughs and Chuckles the Clown over where we are right now. Nobody is excited about where we are but as a team, everybody is determined to say we’ve got to get it straight. There’s things we can do a better job of as coaches. The players’ mind-set and attitude has been there are some things we have to do better as players if we want to finish this up the right way."
But ultimately, Holtz will be judged on his record. That simply has not been good enough.
"I’m going to use the analogy that Coach (Bobby) Bowden used to say," Holtz said. "I want you to graduate your players; I want you to have good young men who are going to be great in the community, but the bottom line is you better win. That’s what we’ve got to do. We’e got to turn this around after this open date. That’s the ultimate grading sheet that we’re graded on, is wins and losses."