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Saturday, August 30th, 7:00 p.m. (et)
From The Sports Network
By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The South Florida football program emerged as a force on the national level last season and the 19th-ranked Bulls will now try to continue that success in 2008, as they host the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks in the opener for both squads.
The Bulls were one of the best stories of the 2007 college football season, as the relatively new program finished 9-4 and was even ranked second in the nation at one point. It was certainly quite an accomplishment for a program that had been in existence for just 11 years. Jim Leavitt, the program's first and only head coach, owns a 79-47 all-time mark at USF and this could be the year he guides the Bulls to a BCS Bowl game. The Bulls welcome back a wealth of experience on each side of the ball so it is no surprise that the program is ranked in a preseason poll for the first time in school history.
As for UTM, it plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level, so the program is obviously an underdog this weekend. The Skyhawks struggled last season and finished just 4-7 overall and that was a big step back from 2006, when they won a share of the Ohio Valley Conference title and advanced to the postseason for the first time since 1988. Third year head coach Jason Simpson has some holes to fill this year, but there could be enough talent to recapture the magic of the 2006 season.
This is the first-ever meeting between UTM and USF on the gridiron.
After a slow start to the 2007, the Skyhawks' offense clicked down the stretch and the team finished the year averaging a hardy 33.4 ppg and solid 430.5 total ypg. UTM rotated quarterbacks last season between Dexter Anoka and Cade Thompson and both are welcomed back after combining for over 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air. Thompson, who converted 65.3 percent of his tosses last season, is expected to be the starter, while Anoka will come off the bench and provide a spark.
Whomever is under center will surely benefit from a solid wide receiver group that includes Roren Thomas. The steady Thomas was the team's top target last season, catching 39 balls for 553 yards and six scores, and he figures to have an all-league caliber year.
While the passing game is set, the same certainly can't be said about the ground attack. Don Chapman, who rushed for 1,125 yards and 11 scores last season, is now gone and there is no real replacement. The Skyhawks plan to use several different backs, which will run behind an offensive line that is deep and athletic.
The Skyhawks' defense didn't give up a ton of yardage last season, but this unit failed to create many turnovers and also surrendered 30.3 ppg. An improvement though, is likely, as several quality starters are back in the fold. Up front, UTM is solid and returns a lot of leadership as well as a pair of steady tackles in Ray Williams and Jerrod Grace, whom combined for 81 tackles and four sacks a year ago. The line still needs a legitimate pass rusher, as the Skyhawks managed just 16 total sacks last season.
At linebacker, UTM isn't nearly as strong or experienced, but the team is hopeful that Josh Bey can develop into a star. The 6-0, 210-pound Bey racked up 38 stops as a freshman last season and he has the speed and talent to dominate a game.
As for the secondary, this unit is filled with athleticism and experience and should be the strength of the defense. Safeties Dontrell Miller and Dante Harrold are welcomed back as starters and they combined for 115 stops a year ago.
Quarterback Matt Grothe has been the heart and soul of the USF program the last two seasons and his return gives the Bulls a leader as well as a big time playmaker. The junior gunslinger is a dual threat who passed for 2,670 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 872 yards and 10 more scores. He did throw 14 interceptions though, so making better decisions is something coach Leavitt would like to see from his star player in 2008.
"Matt knows our offense pretty well, but he's kind of in a tough bind because on one had he makes so many plays because he is a playmaker, he gets out there and gets out of jams and makes a lot of plays, but he also has to understand that he has to protect the football. You hope that he will do a good job making those kinds of decisions. Every situation is different because now he knows that if there is nothing for him down field that throwing the ball out of bounds is ok."
Grothe will have some intriguing wideouts to work with this season, although no one players has emerged as a go-to-guy. Taurus Johnson caught 34 passes for 407 yards and four scores a year ago and he has the type of speed and elusiveness for a breakout campaign.
In the backfield, the Bulls have two good options in sophomores Jamar Taylor and Mike Ford. Ford had the bigger season last year with 645 yards and a team- high 12 touchdowns, but Taylor was impressive in the spring and could end up as the starter. With four starters back along the offensive line, both tailbacks should have plenty of room to run wild.
The Bulls were nothing short of solid on the defensive side of the ball last season and they figure to be just as good with the return of six starters from a unit that forced 42 turnovers and limited opponents to only 342.6 total ypg in 2007. The face of this USF defense is rush end George Selvie, who registered 14.5 sacks last season to rank among the national leaders. The First Team All-American also led the nation with 31.5 TFLs last season and the fact he was so successful as a sophomore is just down right scary.
At the linebacker spot, the Bulls have another star player in Tyrone McKenzie, the team's leading tackler with 121 stops a year ago. In the secondary, significant losses leave holes to be filled. Standout corners Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams are gone, and replacing the nation's top corner duo is a daunting task. Fortunately, safeties Nate Allen (84 tackles, four interceptions) and Carlton Williams (69 stops) are still in place.
USF is the obvious choice here, as it possesses the far better talent from top to bottom. The Bulls should control the game from start to finish and will most likely give their starters a break at some point in the second half.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Florida 38, Tennessee-Martin 10
08/27 10:56:43 ET