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USF headed to Birmingham Bowl (UPDATED)

USF, on the heels of a 10-2 regular season, announced Sunday afternoon it will play South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field.

The Dec. 29 contest fulfills the Bulls' postseason wish list in two aspects: (1) It's a bona fide bowl trip instead of an in-state commute, and (2) it represents a nationally-televised opportunity to garner credibility against a prominent Power Five team.

“This is a great opportunity for our program to go out and show the country what we are all about and add another significant victory to a record-breaking season,” Bulls coach Willie Taggart said in a statement released by USF.

“We wanted to make going to bowl games a regular occurrence again at South Florida, so it’s great to be returning to a bowl for a second straight season and have the opportunity to play an SEC opponent in Birmingham.”

ESPN owns and operates the Birmingham Bowl and will televise the game, which kicks off at 2 p.m. Tickets are $50 each; ticket information can be found here. …

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Full disclosure: My latest AP ballot

Let's clarify something here and now: If I were a College Football Playoff selection committee member, this ballot would look a bit different.

The CFP protocol states when two teams being considered for the playoff are comparable, their head-to-head result (if there was one) and the conference championship game are among the primary tie-breakers.

In light of that, Penn State would rank ahead of Ohio State on my CFP ballot. The Nittany Lions may not necessarily be better, but we all know the best teams don't always vie for championships (see March Madness).

But this isn't a CFP ballot. For AP poll purposes, I'm ranking the teams I feel are the best 25 in the country, in order.

Hence the reason I have Ohio State second.

It's also why I have Iowa 14th, Temple 16th and USF 20th. In my assessment, all are among the nation's 20 best teams at this point in time.

And time's running out. This is the final poll until the new year.

1. Alabama
2. Ohio State
3. Clemson
4. Washington
5. Penn State
6. Oklahoma
7. Michigan
8. Wisconsin
9. USC
10. FSU
11. Colorado
12. Western Michigan
13. West Virginia
14. Iowa
15. Oklahoma State
16. Temple
17. Houston
18. Stanford
19. Virginia Tech
20. USF 
21. Auburn
22. LSU
23. Louisville
24. Pittsburgh
25. Florida

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Report: Taggart met with Oregon AD

In recent days, Twitter has been rife with photos of USF prospects posing with Bulls coaches during in-home visits. Shaun King, T.J. Weist, Alonzo Hampton and David Reaves all have popped up in these smile-centric snapshots.

One coach conspicuously absent: Willie Taggart.

Oregonian columnist John Canzano, citing an anonymous source, reported Saturday via Twitter that Taggart met with Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens in Texas. The Ducks are seeking a replacement for Mark Helfrich, dismissed after four years in the immediate wake of a 4-8 season.

USF athletic director Mark Harlan declined comment when asked by the Tampa Bay Times if anyone from Oregon has requested permission to speak with Taggart, saying he doesn't address  personnel matters of that nature.

Taggart, who has won 17 of his last 21 games as Bulls coach, has been widely considered a strong candidate for the job.

Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search reportedly is assisting Oregon in its search for Helfrich's replacement. The state of Oregon has a "Rooney Rule" that requires at least one minority candidate to be interviewed for the job.

 

 

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Former USF assistant Tom Allen named IU coach (UPDATED)

Former USF defensive coordinator Tom Allen, who left for the same job at Indiana last winter, has been named Hoosiers head coach, the school announced Thursday  evening.

Allen replaces Kevin Wilson, whose abrupt resignation was accepted amid reports the school was investigating his treatment of Hoosiers players.

"Once Coach Wilson and I concluded to part ways, I turned to determining who the best person in the country would be to keep up our momentum and take us to another level with our football team," IU athletic director Fred Glass said in a school news release.

"I quickly concluded that person was in our midst in Tom Allen. He is a leader of men. He is demanding without being demeaning. He is a proven, successful coach on a national scale with deep Indiana ties. He cares about his players, and they care back."

In one season at IU, Allen -- raised in New Castle, Ind. -- has overseen a defensive resurgence of sorts. The bowl-eligible Hoosiers (6-6) rank 40th nationally in total defense (372.6 ypg) after ranking 120th (509.5 ypg) last season. …

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Is Willie Taggart a 'strong' Oregon candidate?

As you read this, Willie Taggart's name continues to ricochet off each coast -- Pacific and Atlantic -- of cyberspace.

Speculation about the fourth-year Bulls coach's future intensified Wednesday evening when Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman tweeted that Taggart has emerged as a "strong" candidate to replace Mark Helfrich at Oregon.

Frankly, we don't see it happening (neither do some program insiders to whom we've spoken). And if you recall, Taggart interviewed last season at South Carolina (in what some skeptics deemed a leverage move to sweeten his deal at USF).

And a vague tweet issued Thursday by Taggart himself may have offered a glimmer of hope to Bulls fans praying he'll remain in Tampa.

 

Time decides who you meet in life, your heart decides who you want in your life, and your behavior decides who stays in your life. Go Bulls!

Still, far stranger things have happened in the collegiate stratospher. And Taggart's up-tempo offensive philosophy, surreal resuscitation of USF football, and connection to the West Coast (three years as Stanford's running backs coach) has given Feldman's tweet some traction. …

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Navy's Will Worth omitted from All-AAC team

On the surface, the 2016 All-American Athletic Conference football team, chosen by the league's coaches, appears decent. …

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Quinton Flowers named AAC Offensive Player of the Year

While Quinton Flowers continues flying a bit below the radar around the country, his record-shattering season is appreciated around the conference.

Case in point: The American Athletic Conference coaches have elected Flowers the league's Offensive Player of the Year. The announcement comes the same day Flowers, previously named a semifinalist for the Walter Camp Award, wasn't picked as a finalist.

He's the first Bull to be named a conference offensive player of the year, and one of three Bulls named to this season's All-AAC first team, joining TB Marlon Mack and LT Kofi Amichia.

The entire team can be seen here.

In his second full season as the Bulls starter, Flowers statistically asserted himself as one of the greatest player evers to put on a USF uniform.

He already has established a Bulls single-season rushing yardage record, and is the only player in school history to amass at least 1,000 rushing and 2,000 passing yards in the same season. His 1,425 yards on the ground (he has 2,551 passing yards) represent the eighth-best rushing season by a Division I quarterback.

He enters the Bulls' bowl game ranked 10th nationally in total offense (331.3 ypg). …

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AAC power rankings, Week 13

Six of the 12 teams in the American Athletic Conference won at least eight games during the regular season, but only two could reach Saturday's AAC title game Saturday: Navy and Temple. The Midshipmen will have home-field advantage and try to make one final push for the Group of Five's guaranteed spot in a New Year's Six Bowl, while Temple will try to atone for its loss to Houston in last year's championship game.

Here's a look at the final conference power rankings of the season, as compiled by a league-wide panel of beat reporters. (Note: Only 11 votes were cast in this week's rankings.)

1. USF (10-2, 7-1 AAC): The Bulls capped the best regular season in program history with a 48-31 victory against rival UCF, earning their first national ranking (No. 24) since September 2011. Junior QB Quinton Flowers and TB Marlon Mack scored a pair of touchdowns, extending the team's nation-leading streak of 30-plus-point games to 16, dating to last season. Though USF won't be playing for its first AAC title, it is on track for a solid postseason spot with the Birmingham Bowl and Military Bowl the favorites among possible destinations. — Jeff Odom, Tampa Bay Times

2. Navy (9-2, 7-1): The Midshipmen remained on an epic offensive roll Saturday afternoon in Dallas. Navy amassed a season-high 496 rushing yards and 600 total yards in a 75-31 destruction of SMU. QB Will Worth continues to operate the offense at a high level while putting up impressive numbers himself; he rushed for 107 yards and three TDs, and passed for 104 yards and a score. He is the first quarterback in Navy history to surpass 100 yards rushing and passing in three consecutive games.  — Bill Wagner, Baltimore Sun Media Group

3. Temple (9-3, 7-1): The Owls earned their second consecutive trip to the AAC title game with Saturday's 37-10 win against East Carolina. Most notable was that Temple was not penalized in the game. Owls leading receiver Ventell Bryant (38 receptions, 697 yards, three TDs) is questionable for Saturday's championship game at Navy with a shoulder injury. In Saturday's win, Phillip Walker became the first Temple quarterback to throw for 10,000 career yards. Temple will take a six-game winning streak into Saturday's championship game. — Marc Narducci, Philadelphia Inquirer

4. Houston (9-3, 5-3): The Tom Herman speculation finally has ended. Hours after a 48-44 loss at Memphis, Herman met with Texas officials and agreed to become the Longhorns’ next coach. Herman went 22-4 in two seasons, and without question left the program in better shape that when he arrived with an AAC championship, New Year’s Six bowl and several marquee top-10 victories. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will serve as interim coach for the Cougars’ bowl game and, with offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, will be considered for the permanent job. — Joseph Duarte, The Houston Chronicle

5. Tulsa (9-3, 6-2): For a third time this season, Tulsa prevailed in overtime, topping Cincinnati 40-37. Three early turnovers Friday night against the Bearcats led to a 17-point deficit, but the offensive line helped deliver an eighth outing of at least 300 rushing yards, including 197 by James Flanders, who set the program record for single-season rushing yards (1,529). — Kelly Hines, Tulsa World

6. Memphis (8-4, 5-3): The Tigers saved their most impressive win of the regular season for the final week, edging then-No. 21 Houston, 48-44, on a 10-yard TD pass from Riley Ferguson to Anthony Miller with 19 seconds remaining. The victory gave Memphis a third consecutive season with eight wins or more, exceeding expectations in Coach Mike Norvell’s first year. The Tigers now await their bowl assignment, with the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 20 a strong possibility. — Tom Schad, The Commercial Appeal

7. UCF (6-6, 4-4): The Knights finished the season with losses to the lethal offenses from Tulsa and USF. UCF struggled to its second-lowest rushing performance (64 yards) against the Bulls on the road Saturday in a 48-31 loss. Despite the disappointment, UCF will advance to a bowl game after going 0-12 last season. — Shannon Green, Orlando Sentinel

8. SMU (5-7, 3-5): SMU had two opportunities to earn bowl eligibility but couldn't pull upsets against USF and Navy. With Chad Morris-to-Baylor rumors creating a distraction (his talks with Baylor ultimately fell through), SMU folded against Navy in an embarrassing 75-31 loss. SMU was outplayed and outcoached as it gave up 600 yards and failed to get anything going on offense in the second half. The good news for SMU is that most of its depth chart featured freshmen and sophomores. The Mustangs will be young and talented next year and have a chance to be a threat in the AAC. — EJ Holland, Dallas Morning News

9. Cincinnati (4-8, 1-7): The Bearcats offense suddenly erupted in the regular season finale, but UC still lost 40-37 at Tulsa in overtime. The Bearcats had totaled only 26 points in their previous four games. The big question now is whether coach Tommy Tuberville returns for a fifth season. UC has gone 9-4, 9-4, 7-6 and now 4-8 under Tuberville, who said he has no intention of leaving, if the “higher-ups” still want him. UC athletic director Mike Bohn still has not commented on whether Tuberville will return. — Tom Groeschen, Cincinnati Enquirer

10. East Carolina (3-9, 1-7): With seven catches in a 37-10 loss to Temple, Pirates WR Zay Jones set an NCAA single-season receptions, finishing with 158 catches for 1,746 yards and eight TDs. After starting the season 2-0, the Pirates lost nine of their final 10 games, including four in a row to end the season. — Tom Schad, The Commercial Appeal

11. Tulane (4-8, 1-7): Tulane found a way to close the 2016 season on a high note with Saturday’s 38-13 win against UConn to end a six-game losing streak and give Green Wave first-year coach Willie Fritz his first conference win. The 38 points was the most Tulane scored since its Oct. 1 win against Louisiana-Lafayette, and Fritz is hoping to build off the team’s final win of the season as he heads into his second year. — Will Guillory, The Times-Picayune

12. Connecticut (3-9, 1-7): The Huskies were on the wrong end of some of the most lopsided play in recent college football history down the stretch. UConn lost its final six games, was outscored 130-16 over the final four, and finished with the worst offense in the nation (14.8 ppg). The final insult came Saturday, a 38-13 loss at home to Tulane. Bob Diaco, 11-26 through three seasons, is expected back as coach but the staff likely will feature a new offensive coordinator and several changes. — Mike Anthony, The Hartford Courant

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Could Temple keep Bulls out of Birmingham?

At most, only five days of bowl limbo remain, and Bulls fans are understandably agog over the possibilities.

Especially the ones that have the Bulls landing at Legion Field. The hopes of the 24th-ranked Bulls (10-2) facing an SEC foe in the Birmingham Bowl were further stoked Tuesday when ESPN's Mark Schlabach and Brett McMurphy both projected USF to play in the Dec. 29 game, against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, respectively.

To be sure, it's a viable scenario. But Bulls fans also must come to grips with another plausibility.

Temple, the bane of the Bulls' regular season, may also become the bane of their bowl season. While Schlabach and McMurphy both project the Owls to play N.C. State in the Military Bowl, that seems far from a slam dunk. Follow us here:

At this stage, Birmingham and Annapolis, Md. -- site of the Dec. 27 Military Bowl -- seem the likeliest postseason destinations for Temple and USF. Thing is, the Owls play in Annapolis -- against Navy -- in Saturday's American Athletic Conference title game.

It's unlikely Temple or its fans would be too giddy over playing in the same stadium only 24 days later. The same reason USF fans don't want a berth in the St. Pete Bowl (not a bona fide bowl trip) is probably the same reason Owls fans don't want a return trip to Annapolis, which is fewer than 100 miles from Philadelphia.

Moreover, if the Owls defeat Navy, they could be afforded more say -- as conference champions -- in determining their postseason destination. And they'd almost certainly prefer facing an SEC foe than one from the ACC (in the Military).

Again, who knows how everything will transpire. For now, it's just a scenario to chew on.

Even if it may be tough for fans in these parts to swallow.

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USF women narrowly miss top 25

Despite victories against name brands North Carolina and Georgia in a three-day span last week in the Bahamas, the undefeated USF women barely failed to crack the top 25 in the latest Associated Press poll released Monday.

The Bulls (4-0), who already have defeated two teams (Georgia, Jacksonville) that reached last season's NCAA Tournament, received more total points (51) than any unranked team. They can notch their first 5-0 start in four years Wednesday evening when they host FIU.

Buoyed by the long-range proficiency of sophomore Kitija Laksa USF (4-0), the Bulls trounced the Tar Heels and Bulldogs by a combined 44 points at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas. Laksa, who scored 34 points in both games and finished 14-of-27 from 3-point range for the tournament, was named the event's MVP.

On Monday, she was named American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week. Senior Ariadna Pujol was named a tournament all-star after totaling 49 points in the two contests, including a 26-point, seven-rebound effort in USF's 83-55 rout of North Carolina on Thanksgiving Day.

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For first time, Bulls can finish with more wins than "Big 3"

At least one more unprecedented height remains to be scaled in this landmark season for USF football.

For the first time in the program's 20-year history, the Bulls (10-2) have a chance to finish a season with more victories than Florida (8-3), FSU (9-3) and Miami (8-4). USF, winner of 10 games for the first time ever, still has one game to play, at a bowl site yet to be determined.

At this point, Florida would have to shock top-ranked Alabama in the SEC title game, then win its ensuing bowl contest to even match the Bulls' current win total. FSU still has a bowl game remaining, but the Bulls still finish higher in the victory column if they win their bowl game or the 'Noles lose theirs.

USF came tantalizingly close to exceeding the win total of the state's "Big Three" one other time, in 2007. The Bulls finished 9-4 that year, same record as Florida and well ahead of FSU (7-6) and UM (5-7).

The Bulls' 2002 squad -- a Division I independent -- finished 9-2, tallying more victories than the Gators under first-year coach Ron Zook (8-5) and equaling FSU's win total (9-5), but finishing well behind the national runner-up 'Canes (12-1). In 2010, Skip Holtz's first season, the Bulls finished 8-5, matching Florida's record and eclipsing Miami's (7-6), but finishing well behind FSU (10-4). 

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USF linebacker Cecil Cherry transferring

USF redshirt freshman MLB Cecil Cherry announced Sunday evening via Twitter he's transferring after barely more than a year in the program.

Cherry told the Lakeland Ledger's Brady Fredericksen on Sunday evening he'll transfer to Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss. He said was told one thing by USF's coaches -- and did another -- in regard to playing time, according to Fredericksen.

Not listed on the Bulls' most recent two-deep chart, Cherry departs his second Division I school in as many years. A four-star recruit from Lakeland's Victory Christian Academy, he signed with Texas but spent only a few days in the Longhorns' preseason camp before arriving at USF in August 2015. 

Cherry played in all 12 games, including spot duty at linebacker and on special teams, registering 30 tackles. He'll be best remembered for his devastating hit on Memphis senior B.J. Ross on the opening kickoff of USF's 49-42 victory against the Tigers earlier this month. The hit ended Ross' season.

Still, he remained behind veteran Auggie Sanchez and sophomore Danny Thomas on the middle linebacker depth chart.

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Bulls earn first AP ranking in 5 years

Shortly after his team staged its latest four-quarter campaign for a national ranking against UCF, Bulls coach Willie Taggart did some extra lobbying.

"What, we're 10-2 and we're still not ranked?'" Taggart said following USF's 48-31 triumph against the Knights. "I think (WR) Marquez Valdes-Scantling said it best to all the writers out there that rank: USF is still winning over here, okay? We're still winning. Hopefully somebody sees that."

They have.

In the wake of that historic triumph, which gave USF its first 10-win season, the Bulls (10-2) are No. 24 in the latest Associated Press top 25. It's their first poll appearance since September 2011, Skip Holtz's second season in Tampa.

The Tampa Bay Times ballot ranked USF No. 21.

USF is among six teams entering the poll this week, a record for the top-25 era. Atop the poll, undefeated Alabama remains No. 1, followed by Ohio State, Clemson, Washington and Michigan.

Elsewhere, FSU moved up three spots to No. 12 following its 31-13 victory against Florida. The Gators fell two spots to No. 15.

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Full disclosure: My latest AP ballot

During his recent visit to Tampa, College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock -- the "traffic cop" in the room when the committee selects its top 25 -- said the group essentially starts its rankings from scratch each week.

Which is to say, it doesn't work off the previous week's rankings as a reference point. It simply picks the teams it deems the nation's 25 best at that moment.

After 10 of the 25 teams on my most recent ballot lost during the holiday weekend, I was forced to adopt a similar stance: Blow up the ballot and start from scratch.

Well, at least 60 percent of the ballot. Only one team in my previous top 10 -- Michigan -- lost, and that was in double-overtime on the road at Ohio State. It was No. 11-25 where I struggled mightily.

I deliberated, dissected, even doubted. The result was a considerable shakeup.

This week, I have three American Athletic Conference teams ranked, one fewer than the number of SEC teams on my ballot. One can argue ad nauseum about the order in which Navy (No. 16), Houston (No. 18) and USF (No. 21) appear, and more than one argument may be valid.

My thought process: Navy (9-2) is a division champ averaging 49.1 points over its last seven games (including 75 against SMU on Saturday). And while Houston (9-3) lost Friday at Memphis, its victories against Oklahoma and Louisville (yes, Louisville's still a good team) can't be ignored.

Elsewhere, Iowa makes the biggest leap, re-entering at No. 15. Why? The Hawkeyes (8-4) have won their last three -- against Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska -- by a combined score of 82-23.

At this moment, I think the Hawkeyes are among the nation's 15 best teams. Similarly, I feel Stanford (9-3), which has won five in a row and owns a victory against USC, is among the 20 best.

Finally, Pitt (8-4) makes its '16 debut on my ballot because it has averaged 58.3 points in consecutive victories against Clemson, Duke and Syracuse. That early-season 42-39 win against Penn State doesn't look shabby either. 

1. Alabama
2. Ohio State
3. Clemson
4. Wisconsin
5. Washington
6. Oklahoma
7. Michigan
8. Penn State
9. USC
10. Colorado
11. FSU
12. Oklahoma State
13. Western Michigan
14. West Virginia
15. Iowa
16. Navy
17. Florida
18. Houston
19. Virginia Tech
20. Stanford
21. USF
22. Auburn
23. LSU
24. Louisville
25. Pittsburgh

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UCF-USF: Click here for coverage

USF made history Saturday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, and we did our darndest to chronicle every sliver of it for posterity.

First our game story from the Bulls' 48-31 triumph against UCF, which established a program season record for victories (10). Additionally, Times correspondent Jeff Odom notes a few things you might have missed from the CBS Sports Network broadcast (including the handful of Skip Holtz holdovers honored on senior day).

In the wake of the landmark victory, columnist Martin Fennelly asks whether the Bulls can keep Coach Willie Taggart, whose stock might be at an apex. Finally, it seems UCF's coaches were a little miffed at the Bulls' final TD (scored with 11 seconds remaining). 

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