No one should underestimate the job Jim Leavitt did at USF. He built the program from scratch and carried it through the Division I-AA and Conference USA ranks into the Big East.
The Bulls have had their share of hot starts and high AP rankings (No. 2 for a week in 2007). A victory at Florida State in 2009 signaled they're on the cusp of competing with the big boys in the state, even though USF lost to Miami late in the season.
Despite all the strides Leavitt oversaw in the program's 14-year history, USF seemed to welcome a culture change when Skip Holtz replaced Leavitt, who was fired over accusations he mistreated a player.
East Carolina won two conference titles under Holtz. While USF has had its share of high-profile moments in recent seasons, winning a conference title has eluded the Bulls.
This season might not be the best indicator of where the Bulls will go under Holtz. Even if Leavitt remained, this would have been a season of transition. Holtz will be able to build the offense around sophomore quarterback B.J. Daniels, but USF continues to look for answers at the other skill positions.
Here's a closer look at USF.
THE SCHEME: Under Jim Leavitt, USF ran a spread offense. New coach Skip Holtz brought coordinator Todd Fitch with him from East Carolina, meaning the quarterback will play under center more often but not exclusively. The offense will have multiple looks, often with two backs. Screens, draws and delays will make regular appearances.
STAR POWER: Sophomore QB B.J. Daniels made a loud and historic statement in his first career start. Daniels passed for 215 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 126 yards in a 17-7 upset of Florida State in his hometown of Tallahassee; it was USF's first win over Florida, Florida State or Miami. The rest of his season had its ups and downs, but he finished with 1,983 passing yards and a team-leading 772 rushing yards.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Following the dismissal of never-lived-up-to-the-massive-hype RB Mike Ford, the Bulls are looking for a feature back. Senior Moise Plancher isn't flashy, but he does the little things well. USF added three-star prospect Michael Hayes from junior college; he's a speedy back who rushed for 1,269 yards last season while catching 31 passes for 329 yards. That kind of production would make him an asset in the new offense.
STRONGEST AREA: The line returns all five starters, but only G Chaz Hine truly played consistently last season. Coaches are high on C Sampson Genus. Keep an eye on speedy sophomore Lindsey Lamar, who ended the spring as a starting receiver; he could be a run-catch threat similar to West Virginia's Jock Sanders.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Daniels looks as if he could be a special talent, but the other offensive skill positions are a concern. The backup quarterback is Evan Landi, but he's also playing wide receiver, a position where USF has had injury trouble recently. A.J. Love is out for at least the start of the season with a torn ACL, and Sterling Griffin suffered a broken ankle in late June and his status is up in the air. Plancher, who earned a sixth year of eligibility, is a dependable veteran at running back, but the Bulls are still seeking someone such as Hayes or freshman Marcus Shaw to become a big-play back. Former QB Matt Grothe led USF in rushing for three seasons and Daniels did the same last season, so finding a go-to tailback is important.
THE SCHEME: Holtz didn't bring his East Carolina coordinator with him to USF. Instead, Greg Hudson accepted the linebacker coach position at Florida State before Holtz left ECU. Holtz instead hired Mark Snyder, a former Marshall head coach and Ohio State defensive coordinator. Snyder runs a 4-3 defense, but he often will stack the line with a five-man front and two linebackers.
STAR POWER: USF's top defensive players are gone, with Es George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul, FS Nate Allen and LB Kion Wilson trying their hands at the NFL. We'll call this category rising star power instead. Sophomore LB Sam Barrington has one career start, but he could become an all-conference performer. He finished with 41 tackles despite playing as a backup to Wilson.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The secondary has the most defensive question marks, meaning a talent such as four-star CB Terrence Mitchell could make an impact right away. He was a top-15 recruit in the state that USF plucked away from Florida State. A Tampa Hillsborough graduate, Mitchell could play immediately. He played safety in high school, but his speed will be best served at cornerback.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Inexperience will be an issue all over the defense, especially if USF needs to turn to its backups. Half of the defensive two-deep consists of sophomores and redshirt freshmen. CB Quenton Washington is the only definite starter in the secondary. Part-time starter Kayvon Webster seems like a good pick as the other cornerback, but safety remains a question mark.
USF will have a competition for kicking duties. Eric Schwartz had the job last season and hit 11-of-16 field-goal attempts. Maikon Bonani, who is likely to assume kickoff duties, missed last season with a back injury after going 15-of-21 in 2008. There will be a new punter. Kick returner Dontavia Bogan and punt returner Faron Hornes are back, but neither did all that much last season. The Bulls' coverage teams struggled last season, and the punt-coverage unit was the worst in the nation, allowing an otherworldly 21.0 yards per return.
USF won't be in the same neighborhood as Florida, Florida State and Miami unless the Bulls start defeating those teams on a regular basis. In Daniels' first career start, the Bulls answered the call against Florida State in Tallahassee with a 17-7 win last season. They struggled to compete at home against Miami, though, with a 31-10 loss in November. USF will need that road advantage in a big way this season if it hopes to keep up at Florida (Sept. 11) and at Miami (Nov. 27). USF should cruise through the rest of its non-conference schedule, however. The Bulls' biggest problem the past two seasons has been Big East foes, as USF is a combined 5-9. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, USF plays four of its seven conference games at home, but the road trips will be a challenge. The Bulls face West Virginia in Morgantown and Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium in an eight-day span.
Consistency has eluded USF in recent seasons. The Bulls have been known for hot starts (16-0 combined the past three seasons, and USF is the only FBS team to start at least 5-0 in each of the past three seasons) and late-season fades (9-13 to end the past three seasons). Holtz will try to coax more consistency out of the Bulls, but it will be difficult in his first season in Tampa. USF will be a young team learning new systems on both sides of the ball. But those struggles shouldn't last for long, especially as USF continues to recruit at a higher level.