TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Charlie Strong is accustomed to high expectations.
But the situation is a little different in for him at South Florida. He isn’t building or re-building a program in his first season. He is trying to lead a talented Bulls team to another level.
The Bulls could be on the verge of something special. The former Texas and Louisville head coach heads a USF team coming off a school-best 11-2 finish under Willie Taggart, who left for Oregon last December.
But this isn’t just about what happened last year.
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The Bulls’ No. 19 preseason ranking in Monday’s Top 25 poll matches the highest in school history. And after being ousted by Texas after three tumultuous seasons, Strong relishes the challenge USF presents.
“What we have to understand is it really doesn’t matter where you start. It’s where you finish,” Strong said, adding the challenge is to do everything it takes to ensure the Bulls remain among the nation’s elite at the end of the season.
The Bulls also made some AP poll history on Monday by joining the No. 3 Seminoles, No. 17 Gators and No. 18 Hurricanes in becoming the first quartet of schools from the same state — third overall — to be ranked in the preseason poll since 1958, when No. 8 TCU, No. 11 Texas, No. 17 SMU and No. 20 Texas A&M were listed.
The only other instance was in 1952, when No. 8 California, No. 13 Stanford, No. 16 USC and No. 18 UCLA all made the initial list.
Strong was a long-time assistant at Florida before landing his first college heading coaching job at Louisville.
He understands that in order to be at or near the top when the dust settles, his Bulls need to make a strong bid for USF’s first American Athletic Conference championship.
“The thing we can’t do is get complacent, get full of ourselves,” said Strong.
Though likely detrimental as Strong warns, it would almost be understandable for the Bulls to get a little over confident; they are loaded.
Strong inherited a roster returning 16 starters, including dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers and defensive leader Auggie Sanchez.
Flowers was the AAC’s offensive player of the year, as well as the nation’s second-leading rusher among quarterbacks last season behind Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in Louisville.
In addition to averaging a conference-record 7.7 yards per carry while rushing for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns, Flowers also completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,812 yards, 24 TDs and eight interceptions.
Flowers and Sanchez were instrumental in helping Taggart revive a program that fell on hard times after climbing as high as No. 2 in the Associated Press poll in 2007.
The leadership of the seniors also has facilitated a smooth transition under Strong, who spent four seasons building Louisville into a national contender before going 16-21 during his time at Texas.
USF’s goal since its inaugural season in 1997 has been to establish a program capable of competing on a national scale and take a rightful place alongside the Sunshine State’s Big Three of Florida, Florida State and Miami.
“As an assistant at Florida, I watched USF from afar. You saw them get. All the way up to No. 2,” Strong said. “Everything that’s needed to compete nationally is in place here. . As a coach, that’s what you want. You want those expectations.”
Like Strong, though, Miami coach Mark Richt cautioned that preseason rankings have to be kept in perspective.
“It’s a popularity poll right now. No one really knows for sure and they base it on returning starters and how you finished last year,” Richt said. “If you tend to win a bowl game, you’re more apt to get ranked in the fall. That’s pretty typical.”
But it’s not typical for USF to be a part of those preseason conversations.
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org