TAMPA — When last weekend’s season-opening game began slipping away, it prompted an avalanche of misery for the University of South Florida Bulls.
Who saw it coming?
McNeese State 53, USF 21.
“It was a big eye-opener,’’ Bulls junior wide receiver Andre Davis said.
USF can’t afford to blink now. After enduring the embarrassment of resounding defeat against a Football Championship Subdivision program — a three-touchdown underdog, at that — the Bulls (0-1) face a Saturday afternoon trip to Big Ten heavyweight Michigan State (1-0).
“Everything happened so fast that you were almost asking, ‘What happened?’ ” Bulls junior linebacker Reshard Cliett said. “But it’s in the past now. It’s all about how we respond.’’
As disappointing as USF’s performance was for first-year coach Willie Taggart — he called it his “worst nightmare’’ — he’s living by a message he keeps on his desk.
Climbing Is Easier Than Hanging On.
“You keep working your way to the top,’’ Taggart said. “It’s not always easy. I know we all want a quick fix, but it just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, you get to the lowest point before something good happens for you.’’
Taggart said it’s reminiscent of his time at Western Kentucky, when the Hilltoppers were beaten 44-14 by FCS opponent Indiana State.
“Just horrible, one of the worst days of my life,’’ Taggart said. “I’ve been there before. We’ve got to learn from our mistakes. My job is to find what we did good and do it better. Then to find out what we did wrong and either fix it or get rid of it.
“We know we can’t look past any team.’’
Although, especially for fans, it’s tempting.
The NCAA set up the current power structure in 1978, when it split Division I football into I-A (now the Football Bowl Subdivision) and I-AA (FCS, which settles its national championship with a playoff system).
Most big-time schools play one FCS opponent per season, paying them a financial guarantee, which generally means a “guaranteed’’ victory. The FBS school benefits by adding an extremely winnable home game without having to play at the opponent’s site the following season.
Three FBS schools — Notre Dame, UCLA and USC — have never faced an FCS opponent. This season, other BCS league schools that aren’t playing FCS opponents include Michigan, Oklahoma, Penn State, Stanford, Texas and UCF. Big Ten schools have agreed to gradually phase out scheduling of FCS opponents.
Bulls athletic director Doug Woolard thinks “there will always be a niche’’ for FCS games. That’s certainly the case at USF, where Western Carolina (2014), Florida A&M (2015), Towson (2016), Stony Brook (2017) and Elon (2018) are part of future schedules.
In all this season, there are 110 games between the FBS and FCS. That’s more than double the total of 2005, when 54 games were played. One year later, though, the NCAA went to a 12-game schedule. Instead of more attractive intersectional games, such as the recent Ohio State-USC series, the gap was largely filled by adding FCS opponents.
Why not? The percentages say it’s a recipe for victory. In 2008, FBS schools were 85-2 against FCS opponents.
But there are notable exceptions.
In 2007, No. 5-ranked Michigan was beaten 34-32 at home by Appalachian State for one of the larger upsets in modern college football history.
Former Michigan wide receiver Mario Manningham, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said the week following the Appalachian State game “had to be the longest week of my life. People couldn’t stop talking about it. We couldn’t live it down.’’
Manningham remembers seeing hundreds of Michigan State fans wearing Appalachian State shirts outside Spartan Stadium before the Wolverines played there. Later that season, he spotted some Appalachian State shirts in scarlet and gray — Ohio State colors.
“You just had to laugh,’’ Manningham said.
Michigan might have gotten its last laugh by rebounding for a 9-4 finish, including a 41-35 win against Tim Tebow’s Florida Gators at the Capital One Bowl. That was also the case in 2010, when No. 10-ranked Virginia Tech absorbed an abysmal 21-16 loss against 35-point underdog James Madison, then went on an 11-game winning streak to capture the ACC title and reach the Orange Bowl.
“I think we put it behind us, got to work and made a great statement,’’ Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
USF’s unexpected loss against McNeese State already has been beaten into the ground. How do the Bulls move forward?
“We’ve got to respond better to adversity,’’ Cliett said. “Find our mistakes, correct them, go to Michigan State. The first game, it’s done, it’s gone. We’ve got to get better.’’