TAMPA, Fla. – When people think of USF, they think of a team that …
“Don’t say it,” quarterback B.J. Daniels interrupts.
He knows what is coming. So does everybody in the football facility. The Bulls have been a big tease, raising hopes with eyebrow-raising wins, only to dash them with eyebrow-raising losses. Last season only added to that reputation, after USF squandered a 4-0 start and national ranking with its worst season since joining the Big East in 2005.
How can a team with so many big nonconference wins crash so spectacularly in Big East play? You might have an easier time figuring out the meaning to life. No matter the season, something generally goes wrong in Tampa. Last season, it was four games lost on the final play, and the end result was a 5-7 season and no bowl game for the first time as a BCS team.
Daniels and his teammates have lived through the drama the past few seasons, and yes, the perception about their program bothers them. They intend to end all the jokes about the Beat-a-Bulls this season behind a strong senior class that has banded together to make a change.
“We’ve been ranked, we’ve beaten big teams, we’ve been projected to do this and that, but for whatever reason it doesn’t work out,” Daniels said. “We take pride in what we do. We’re not out here punching a clock. A lot of us have passion for the game and love it. It does bother us in the sense that the goals we have set out in the past, we haven’t accomplished. One approach that’s different is we are taking everything one game at a time. If we do the little things every day, we’ll end up where we want to be."
That, of course, would be with Big East championship rings for the first time. USF has plenty going for it as it works toward improving this spring. Eighteen starters return, tops in the Big East. But perhaps most important is a senior class of 24 strong. At least 12 will be starters; at least 18 will be on the two-deep. Every position but receiver will have at least one senior starter. That includes Daniels, who has started nearly every game of his career.
Compare that to last season, when USF had 17 seniors -- only six of them starters.
The larger group has actually been a more united group. After the season ended, the seniors got together to form a plan.
"We said we can’t have another season like we had last year," running back Demetris Murray said. "Days we’re supposed to be off, we're here, working out. We’re not letting days slip by that we can take advantage of."
Seniors have an expanded role in team meeting rooms. The added responsibility of setting an example for the younger players has been embraced wholeheartedly. The goal is to get everybody to buy in, from the most experienced players who have been through all the heartbreak to the freshmen who just want to play.
"All seniors have that urgency to win," linebacker Mike Lanaris said. "But the thing that we need to do as a senior class, we need to permeate that urgency throughout the team. It can’t be 25 guys have this sense of urgency to win a championship while the other 80 guys are worried about something else. We need to spread that sense of urgency and those small things that are going to make a difference need to be stressed. If we can get everybody on the same page, we have a chance to be really, really good."
Lanaris mentioned small things. Paying attention to those critical details has just about every player hooked. The mantra from coach Skip Holtz, repeated since last year, has become a rallying cry. Ask any player, and he will say it, probably as a reflex:
Little things lead to big rings.
So does a renewed focus on conference play, where everybody has to get as excited and motivated as he does when playing geographic rivals like Florida State or national names like Notre Dame. Though USF is really in its infancy as a program, getting some of those bigger nonconference victories ratcheted up expectations for the Big East. If the Bulls can beat Notre Dame on the road, surely they can handle UConn, right?
"We’ve talked a lot about what our goals are and what we want to do and want the next step is," Holtz said. "People talk about, 'Well we’ve got to beat Florida State, we’ve got to beat Miami and we’ve got to beat Florida.' I would have rather lost to Notre Dame and won every won of those close games in the Big East than the way it happened (last season). To me, the next step isn’t to beat a Florida State or a Miami or a Notre Dame or an Auburn. Our next step needs to be able to run the table in the Big East. We need to get to where we can play in a BCS bowl. To win those nonconference games and not play in a BCS bowl takes some of the luster away from those big wins. ... We’ve just got make sure that our players understand the season starts in conference. That’s what we’re playing for."
On paper, this should be the year USF breaks through. This is a veteran team with solid senior leadership -- the best, most vocal leaders since Holtz arrived. Depth is better across the board. Optimism is high. And it doesn't hurt that West Virginia is out of the league.
But when people think of USF ...
"The M.O. here has always been -- they're a talented team that underachieves," Lanaris said. "We want to break that."