In an uncertain time when everything feels unfamiliar, it’s comforting to know that as UConn voyages into The American for the first time, a familiar face will be there to greet them at the outset.
UConn football opens its inaugural American Athletic Conference campaign against the University of South Florida, an old Big East nemesis and a brother in conference realignment abandonment. The game will be played at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Oct. 12, and will follow the Huskies’ second bye week of the season.
The fact that UConn and USF will get to continue their rivalry is probably one of the underrated silver linings of this past year’s conference fiasco. UConn and USF are an even 5-5 all time and have probably played more meaningful games against one another over the past decade than against anyone else, with the results often excruciating for the losing team.
Among the positives, the Huskies earned the program’s first ever win over a ranked team against the Bulls in 2007, followed that up in with an epic last second field goal in a snowstorm during the 2009 regular season finale, and then topped that with another game-winning field goal to clinch a berth in the Fiesta Bowl a year later.
How will this year’s game go? Lets first take a look and see where USF is coming from.
How they’ve fared: Last year was an unmitigated disaster for USF, who got off to a promising 2-0 start before imploding to finish the year 3-9. Considering that the Bulls were originally predicted to finish second in the Big East in the preseason, winning only one conference matchup the whole year was disappointing, to put it mildly.
That being said, their lone conference win came against us, and it wasn’t pretty to watch. USF won 13-6 thanks to a B.J. Daniels touchdown and a pair of field goals, and the only offense UConn could counter with the whole game was two field goals of its own. This was in spite of the fact that the Bulls were playing without linebacker Sam Barrington, the team’s leading tackler who was suspended for the game.
UConn is going to need a better effort from the offense this year if they want to beat the Bulls, or anyone else for that matter.
How they look: This year’s USF team was picked to finish fifth in the conference in the American preseason media poll and features a new coach in Willie Taggart along collection of talented players who could pose a challenge, but not a lot of depth behind them in case things don’t go as planned.
On offense, the Bulls will be fielding a new quarterback with the departure of Daniels, and with a four-way battle still ongoing it’s anyone’s guess what the team’s passing game will ultimately look like. As far as the running game goes, it’s worth noting that Taggart has a strong history of producing high-performing running backs, but the kitchen cupboard is still somewhat bare. Senior Marcus Shaw is the favorite to start, though he has only rushed for 248 yards in his whole career.
The defense looks like it could be more of a problem for the Huskies, especially up front. The Bulls return three defensive linemen who saw significant playing time last year, and also add freshman All-American Aaron Lynch, who transferred from Notre Dame is has already drawn favorable comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul.
The linebacker core also returns senior linebacker DeDe Lattimore, who has started all but one game in his college career and is on the Bednarik watch list with 239 tackles in his career to date. The other linebacker slots will likely be filled by relative newcomers, and it’s anyone’s guess if the secondary will be able to pick off more than two passes this year (both of which came against UConn by the way, because obviously.)
How they match up: From what I can tell, USF looks like a team that shares a lot of UConn’s strengths and weaknesses. The team has a lot of question marks on offense and a defense that mixes some known impact players with new blood hoping to fill the shoes of departed talent.
The one area of worry I have in particular is how our offensive line will match up against their defensive line and linebackers. Last year our line couldn’t block worth a damn, and that wound up contributing to a lot of Chandler Whitmer’s struggles. If the offensive line doesn’t improve, dealing with players like Lynch and Lattimore could prove problematic.
What’s going to happen: The only thing I can say for sure is that whenever UConn plays USF, it’s never pretty. I don’t expect this year’s matchup to be any different, and it will probably be an ugly, low scoring affair that goes down to the wire and is decided by a late field goal or turnover. Just like always.