Following consecutive 9-4 finishes, South Florida was looking to take the next step after earning its first preseason ranking in school history.
Instead, the Bulls couldn’t measure up to those expectations and will travel 32 miles to Tropicana Field for the St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 20 against Memphis.
South Florida opened this season with five straight wins and was the No. 10 team in the nation, but lost five of its last seven to finish 7-5. Last season, the Bulls won their final three Big East contests and finished a game back of co-champs West Virginia and Connecticut. In 2006, they won three of their last four, including a victory over the then-No. 7 Mountaineers.
South Florida can take solace in making its fourth straight bowl appearance. The Bulls have gone 1-2 in the previous three, including a 56-21 loss to Oregon in last year’s Sun Bowl.
“There’s great programs out there not going to bowl games this year, and our seniors are going to have four bowl rings,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “That’s a neat deal, and I’m proud of them for that.”
South Florida struggled offensively at the end of the season, failing to score more than 20 points in the final five games and producing a season-low for points in its finale, a 13-7 loss at West Virginia. The Bulls averaged 14.8 points in their defeats and 34.9 in their victories.
For the third straight year, quarterback Matt Grothe led South Florida in rushing, but his production dropped from 872 yards last season to 508 in 2008. Mike Ford finished with 373 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 10 games after having 645 and running for 12 TDs as a freshman last season.
Grothe set a career high with 2,675 passing yards and tied his career best with 15 touchdowns, but he also threw 14 interceptions for the third straight year. The junior has 11 of those picks in the last five games, with three touchdowns over that span.
On defense, George Selvie led the team for the second straight season in sacks, but had just 5 1/2 after posting 14 1/2 last season. The junior defensive end also made just 12 1/2 tackles for loss after leading the nation with 31 1/2 in 2007.
South Florida’s defense ranks 13th in the country, allowing 291.8 yards per game, and ninth against the run (97.7). The Bulls will face a Memphis team with the nation’s 18th-best rushing attack at 205.6 yards per game, and 22nd-ranked offense (432.2).
“I think they are the most active defensive front we’ve played against,” Tigers coach Tommy West said. “They don’t blitz much because they don’t have to. Their front four makes it happen. We have our work cut out us for, but I think one of the big keys will be how well we run the ball.”
Helping Memphis (6-6) become one of the nation’s top rushing teams was the addition of junior running back Curtis Steele. The junior college transfer had 1,175 yards and seven touchdowns to become the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since DeAngelo Williams in 2005.
Another junior college transfer, Arkelon Hall, passed for 2,121 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Tigers were down to their third-string quarterback in Brett Toney after Hall and Will Hudgens went out on successive series in a 30-10 loss Oct. 18 at East Carolina. Toney started wins over Southern Miss and SMU.
Those two victories, along with a 45-6 win over Tulane in the season finale with Hall back, helped Memphis become bowl eligible for the fifth time in the last six years.
None of the Tigers’ six wins came over opponents who finished with a winning record, and they defeated just one bowl team - Southern Miss.
Before its win over Tulane, the Memphis defense yielded 27.8 points per game.
The Tigers have won three of their five all-time bowl games, falling 44-27 to Florida Atlantic in last season’s New Orleans Bowl.
The Bulls and Tigers played from 2001-04 and split the four meetings, with Memphis winning the last game 31-15 in Tampa.