South Florida and Rutgers, Bigger Than You Think

Upon first look, there would seem to be zero reason to tune into the college football on ESPN tonight as opposed to a critical early season game between the Bears and the Packers. But that’s just upon first look.

Yes, the Big East still gets an automatic birth to the BCS party, and South Florida and Rutgers, along with Louisville, are the heavy favorites to snag such a birth.

Both Rutgers and South Florida have had opportunities to lay claim to a Big East title in recent years, but both have come up short.

South Florida, in particular, had strong teams in both 2006 and 2007. Unfortunately, they saw a three game conference losing streak late  in the season follow an ascension to number the number two ranking in college football in 2007 and wound up not in Miami for the Orange bowl, but in El Paso for the Sun Bowl to be terrorized by the Oregon Ducks offense.

In fact, from 2006-2009 Rutgers was a major thorn in the side of South Florida, winning all four battles, most coming during their annual late season slide.

Last season Rutgers defeated South Florida in overtime, 20-17, giving the Bulls their fourth straight loss after a 4-0 start that propelled them to #16 in the national polls.

In 2012 the Bulls enter the season as the favorite to take home the Big East championship, but in order to do so, finding a way to upend a Scarlet Knights team that has their number must happen.

Rutgers went 11-2 in 2006, but an overtime loss to West Virginia at season’s end handed the conference title to Louisville and sent them to the Orange Bowl while Rutgers was relegated to the Texas Bowl against Kansas State.

Neither team has any intention of playing their bowl games in the state of Texas this season.

For Rutgers, the quest begins with a major challenge, going down to Tampa to play the conference favorites.

Last year Rutgers went 9-4, but lost by two points on the road against both North Carolina and Louisville. With 15 starters back, including both quarterbacks, the top three leading rushers, and seven of their nine leading tacklers, Rutgers entered this year feeling pretty confident. This of course despite the one major loss, coach Greg Schiano, ironically enough to Tampa, to coach the NFL team down there.

It’s Kyle Flood’s first head coaching job and both the offensive coordinator (Dave Brock) and defensive coordinator (Robb Smith) are new. Generally speaking, coaching overhauls take some time for players to get acclimated to.

Perhaps that’s been the reason for the slow start for the Knights. Neither win thus far to open the season has been overly impressive. They beat Tulane on the road 24-12 to start the season in a game that was only 10-6 early in the 4th quarter before a pick six from corner Brandon Jones to basically put the game out of reach. They followed that up with an uninspiring 26-0 victory over Howard the following week.

While the defense has been stout, a sputtering offense is leaving cause for concern as they prepare to take on a good offensive football team in South Florida.

Sophomore Gary Nova was given the keys to the offense this season, but has struggled in his first two starts, against sub standard defenses. He’s only averaged 144 yards per game (115th in the nation), this after the team averaged over 241 a game during the 2011 season. In fact, the lowest total they put up in 2011 was 174 against Pittsburgh.

The running game though has started off strong. Jawan Jamison started nine games last season as a true freshmen and ran for almost 900 yards. He’s picked right up where he left off, averaging 7.9 yards per carry on his way to 222 yards in the first two games.

If Rutgers is to have any shot against South Florida they’re going to need him to carry the load.

This of course will be much easier said than done against a defense that last season allowed a mere 107 yards per game on the ground, and returned six starters on the front seven, including all three starting linebackers.

Granted, South Florida did allow 30 first downs and 549 yards to Nevada last week, including 278 on the ground. Though it should be noted that Nevada has averaged 278, 345, 292, and 248 yards per game on the ground in each of the last four seasons. So it’s not exactly like they were facing a stagnant running game.

While the defense did have its problems with the Nevada attack, offensively South Florida showed why many think this team is the team to beat in the conference. Despite falling behind early, the Bulls rallied behind B.J. Daniels and his 363 yards passing with three touchdowns, with over 50 yards on the ground just as icing on the cake.

Daniels, with Geno Smith no longer in the league, will be a heavy favorite to win player of the year honors in the Big East, and his performance last week demonstrated why.

It will be an interesting matchup between Daniels and the Rutgers secondary. The aforementioned Jones is part of a secondary that returns three starters from a unit that helped the Scarlet Knights limit teams to just 172 yards a game through the air last season and barely complete over half of their passes. Between the three returning starters, corners Jones and Logan Ryan, as well as safety Duron Harmon, the Scarlet Knights bring back 10 interceptions and 19 passes defended.

That the game is played in Tampa would seemingly give the Bulls a slight edge. But keep in mind, they lost their final four home games of 2011, and have lost five consecutive home conference games, so Raymond James Stadium hasn’t exactly been the most difficult stadium for a Big East team to go steal a conference road victory in.

That said, Rutgers is 2-7 on the road during the past two seasons. Last season Rutgers averaged 127 yards a game rushing at home, but just 63 on the road. Again, they’re going to need Jawan Jamison to reverse that trend if they’re to have a chance.

Rutgers defense should keep them in this game, but ultimately, South Florida has too much playmaking ability to keep them in check all game. Rutgers doesn’t seem to have the offensive firepower to keep up for 60 minutes against South Florida and their defense.

Should the Bulls win, they only have a trip to Ball State the following week before coming home for what very well could be the biggest home game in the history of the program. Florida State makes a visit on September 29, and they haven’t forgoten that South Florida went to Tallahassee and beat them 17-7 in 2009.

More importantly though, a win for South Florida gives them the upperhand in what is expected to be a three team race for an Orange Bowl trip.

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