OVERVIEW: USF limped through most of the season under the new coaching staff, but coach Skip Holtz has reason for optimism in 2011. First off, starting QB B.J. Daniels shook off early-season turnover problems in the second half of the year. There should be more potential and better depth at tailback this season, and the receiver corps hopes to be healthier than a year ago. The major question concerns the line, which must replace three starters including standout C Sampson Genus. After averaging just 309 yards per game, second-fewest in the Big East, USF has a handful of reasons to believe the offense will improve. The question, though, is by how much.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Can QB B.J. Daniels avoid turnovers? He could be one of the best playmakers in the Big East, and taking care of the football could be the difference between a conference title and a losing record in the league. Daniels' interceptions have come in bunches. In two years, he has seven multi-interception games. Blame some of his problems last season on learning a new system, but he can't throw 13 picks again.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Bulls win the "Holtz Bowl" at Notre Dame to open the season and take that confidence into a difficult five-game stretch. USF's offense matches the production of the defense, and the Bulls win the Big East. A second win in a row over Miami on Nov. 19 would be a nice crowning touch.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: USF loses convincingly to Notre Dame and never really recovers. The Bulls use a two-quarterback system for the season, and TB Darrell Scott plays like he never left Colorado. USF limps through the Big East schedule, falls out of the race by early November, loses at home to Miami and ends up playing a Conference USA team in a bowl game.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: The Bulls have gone 8-5 and won a bowl game in each of the past three seasons. They've defeated Florida State and Miami on the road in that span, too. But despite all those strides, USF hasn't had a winning record in the Big East since 2007. USF is 8-13 in the league during that span.
BACKFIELD: Daniels struggled early last season in the new offense, particularly with turnovers. He threw four interceptions against Florida, two against Syracuse and three against West Virginia. He clearly was out of his comfort zone. He was bottled up as a runner, rushing for 259 yards after gaining 772 as a redshirt freshman. He also dealt with injuries to two of his top receivers. Daniels recovered down the stretch, throwing only three interceptions in his last six games. As lost as Daniels looked against Florida in September, he looked just as confident in the bowl win over Clemson in which he completed 20-of-27 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Look for Daniels to be more comfortable with Holtz and coordinator Todd Fitch this season. He also should be a more active runner this year, but perhaps not as much as he was under Jim Leavitt. If Daniels struggles early again, he may not have the same leeway he had a year ago. Former walk-on Bobby Eveld proved to be a capable backup, leading the Bulls in the second half in the Nov. 27 win at Miami. For the first time since 2005, a non-quarterback led USF in rushing. That seems likely to continue. Colorado transfer Darrell Scott, the top running back in the 2008 signing class, will be eligible (see more under "Impact Newcomer" heading). Demetris Murray returns after rushing for 533 yards and four touchdowns last season. Former Tampa Chamberlain star Dontae Aycock is eligible after his transfer from Auburn, and he could be a third-down back. Marcus Shaw averaged 8.8 yards per carry in limited duty last season.
RECEIVERS: If the receivers can stay healthy, this position group should enjoy a significant upgrade. Before the 2010 season started, USF had lost two possible starters to injury. A.J. Love, who averaged 18.8 yards per catch in 2009, sustained a torn ACL; he was granted a sixth year of eligibility and will be available this season. Sterling Griffin started 10 games and averaged 18.9 yards per catch as a freshman in 2009, but he missed last season with a dislocated ankle. He's expected to return, too. Former QB Evan Landi is the top returning pass-catcher, with 29 catches for 402 yards. When Love and Griffin were hurt last season, USF didn't have depth. The Bulls should be more prepared this season with former CB Terrence Mitchell, redshirt freshman Deonte Welch and three-star freshman Andre Davis in reserve.
LINE: At least Holtz can say guard won't be an overriding concern. Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren have combined to start all but one game the past two seasons. The other line spots have questions. T Mark Popek (nine career starts) and C Kevin McCaskill (one career start) are veterans with some experience. After showing up overweight, redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon slimmed down to 295 pounds and is the top candidate to start at right tackle. The Bulls may need to rely on five incoming freshmen to provide depth.
OVERVIEW: For all the growing pains USF faced on offense, the Bulls had few on defense under first-year coordinator Mark Snyder. The Bulls ranked 17th in the nation in total defense at 318 yards per game and might have been the fastest defense in the Big East. LBs Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore and three returning starters in the secondary will anchor the defense. The line loses veteran T Terrell McClain, but two of USF's top recruits in recent years - E Ryne Giddins and T Todd Chandler - are poised to take bigger roles.
LINE: NT Cory Grissom is the only returning starter here, but two top recruits in the 2009 and 2010 signing classes were defensive linemen. After redshirting behind George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul as a freshman, Giddins became more of a factor down the stretch in 2010. He had 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception in the final seven games, including two starts. T Keith McCaskill and E Patrick Hampton are fifth-year seniors who have played plenty of snaps the past two seasons. They are the projected starters, but Chandler is worth watching. Chandler, out of powerhouse Miami Northwestern, was a four-star prospect and the No. 20 player in the state in the 2010 recruiting class.
LINEBACKERS: USF loses leading tackler Jacquian Williams, who was the team's biggest surprise last season. But his loss doesn't seem so bad when the returnees at the position are Barrington and Lattimore, who are on their way to being two of the best at their position in the league. Barrington had 65 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss last season, while Lattimore capped a standout freshman season with nine tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in the bowl win over Clemson. Redshirt freshman Reshard Cliett, a former safety, impressed during the spring and could take a spot at outside linebacker. The Bulls will have some depth and flexibility at the position with junior college transfer Mike Juene, who was a high school teammate of Barrington's at Jacksonville Parker, and Michael Lanaris, who started the opener last season at middle linebacker. Barrington could play on the outside with Lanaris in the middle.
SECONDARY: Three starters return in the secondary - CB Quenton Washington and Ss Jon Lejiste and Jerrell Young. USF's playmakers are in the front seven, but the back end of the defense can't be ignored. The three returning starters accounted for only five interceptions last season (three from Young), but the Bulls ranked in the top 40 nationally in pass efficiency defense. Kayvon Webster, who has started 10 games in the past two seasons, moves into the vacant cornerback slot.
USF had high hopes that backup WR Lindsey Lamar would become a more consistent factor on offense - not that the Bulls are complaining about his special teams production. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season and averaged 26.6 yards per return. Mitchell averaged 11 yards per punt return as a freshman. Maikon Bonani is as reliable a kicker as there is in the Big East. He suffered a broken vertebrae in a 35-foot fall from a ride at Busch Gardens in Tampa, causing him to miss the 2009 season, but he returned to make 17-of-21 field goals last season. The major question on special teams is at punter. Jason Brockhaus-Kann handled punting duties last season, but he's under pressure from Chris Veron after he averaged only 37.6 yards per kick. The coverage teams need to improve.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 53rd
Buzz: Skip Holtz and the Bulls finished their 2011 class with a bang when they landed in-state DT Elkino Watson. Watson, a Miami native, opted for USF over, among others, Florida and Miami. USF also added five offensive linemen, addressing a serious need at the position. So far in 2012 the Bulls have just over a half-dozen commitments, and their recent additions of TE Sean Price and CB Chris Bivins are a strong indication that USF is aiming to land some talented in-state prospects. - CHRIS NEE
USF hopes Scott can make the most of his second chance. Scott was the top running back and the No. 6 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class. He was the subject of a heated recruitment between Texas and Colorado before he landed with the Buffaloes. But once on campus, he ceased to be a major factor and rushed for just 438 yards in his two seasons in Boulder. He's hoping to rebuild his career in Tampa. Thanks to depth at running back and the focus on Daniels, Scott doesn't need to be the savior of the offense. But if Scott can be USF's first 800-yard back since Andre Hall in 2005, the offense could take a major step forward.
Since 2006, USF's season openers have been little more than tune-ups - the Bulls have faced McNeese State twice, Elon, UT Martin, Wofford and Stony Brook in past seasons. That makes the opening road trip to Notre Dame a bit of a departure. After that, USF can take a deep breath for most of the rest of the month. A bizarre five-game stretch to start the Big East season likely will determine USF's hopes to win the league. Four of those games - from Sept. 29 to Nov. 11 - will be on the road. October could be a valuable time to regroup and get healthy, or it will sap momentum. The Bulls play only twice in a span of 35 days. USF wraps up its season at home against Miami, Louisville and West Virginia. By then, that stretch could be program-defining or meaningless.
Since joining the Big East, USF has been good enough to reach six consecutive bowls, the longest active streak in the league after West Virginia's nine. Yet the Bulls have struggled just to post a winning record in the league. This may be the season to buck that trend. The defense should be one of the best in the conference, and the offense has enough pieces to contend. The program has had its share of breakthrough moments through the years; this may be its best chance to have a breakthrough season.