TAMPA — It might be difficult to predict a score tonight when the University of South Bulls open their season against Western Carolina, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, at Raymond James Stadium.
It's tough to speculate about the efficiency of sophomore quarterback Mike White, the effectiveness of USF's no-name running game or the wrinkles provided by a Bulls defense that will largely employ a 3-4 scheme.
Very soon, it will play out.
But one thing seems certain.
The Bulls will not — repeat, not — overlook the severely overmatched Catamounts.
“We're never doing anything like that again,'' USF senior receiver Andre Davis said. “We can't let that happen.''
USF learned its lesson last season in coach Willie Taggart's first game. Despite an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage, the Bulls were blasted by McNeese State 53-21, a stunningly embarrassing result. One USF player was so disgusted, he tried to exit the stadium in full uniform before being pulled back into the locker room by coaches.
Taggart tried to use it as a teaching tool, but the Bulls never truly recovered, starting 0-4 before stumbling to a 2-10 finish.
“We're trying to play this game like we're playing Florida State, like it's the biggest game on the schedule and we're playing for the national championship,” Bulls senior defensive tackle Todd Chandler said. “We are not thinking, 'Oh, we're playing an (FCS) school and this is going to be a cakewalk.' ''
The Bulls can't afford to take anything for granted. They produced only 11 offensive touchdowns last season, worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and had the nation's 121st-ranked offense at 256.4 yards per game.
The offensive ineptness obscured a brilliant turnaround by USF's defense, which finished 21st nationally, and a superb season from place-kicker Marvin Kloss, who led the nation with 11 field goals from 40 yards or longer.
With the defense expected to maintain its standard — in the 3-4, USF will feature more of its strength in athletic linebackers — and the special teams among the nation's finest, even an average offense could mean drastic overall improvement for the Bulls.
But according to Taggart, the X-factor remains attitude, togetherness and preparation — all suspect areas last season.
“Our guys have to get back to believing,'' Taggart said. “We needed to be a football team, and I didn't think we were a team (last season). I didn't think we loved each other, and it has to be that way.
“We're all here for the same reasons. If you want a championship team, if you care about each other, you'll play for each other and we'll win ballgames. If we win ballgames, fans will come and everybody will get excited about the team and we'll win championships. But it all starts with them caring about each other. It's not going to work if they don't.''
How the Bulls play tonight — and how they react to the inevitable difficulties — could determine whether they are ready to make a jump back toward respectability.