Ryan Mayer

We’re rapidly approaching the end of August, which means that college football season is right around the corner. “Week 0” as it is known, begins this Saturday with a slate of five games set to be played in the afternoon/evening. One of those games features a team that has been picked by many as a potential undefeated team in Charlie Strong’s South Florida Bulls, who take on San Jose State at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS Sports Network.

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With expectations for the Bulls riding high and the kick off of the college football season upon us, we caught up with CBS Sports college football analyst Randy Cross. He broke down South Florida’s outlook for 2017 while also looking at the AAC and college football as a whole as the season gets underway.

CBS Local Sports: South Florida is looked at as a team that could potentially run the table this year, what are your expectations for the Bulls in Year 1 under Charlie Strong?

Randy Cross: With their talent, and with their schedule, they can be as good as they decide they want to be. Defensively, I think they’re going to be good enough to beat anybody on their schedule. Offensively, they’re going to be good enough to score a lot of points. They’re going to score a lot of points quickly on people. Ask Ken Niumatalolo and Navy about how it went last year in Tampa for them. They were down 28-0 in a blink and, that’s the kind of team that South Florida can have.

It’s a lot of pressure though. And that’s the most significant thing they’ll have during the course of the year not unlike Houston last year. If people are picking you to be 12-0, 13-0, the hardest part is every week ignoring that talk and just concentrating on the next game. They could be the New Year’s Day representative, which means if they accomplish that, they’re 13-0.

CBS Local Sports: Charlie Strong takes over the helm after a disappointing couple of years at Texas, what do you expect from him with this USF program?

Randy Cross: I think it’s pretty easy to look at him (Strong) and say you have a jaundiced eye as far as what he can do. He proved before he ever got to Texas that he’s a hell of a football coach. All he did at Texas was prove that, when he doesn’t have 100 percent of the backing, when he doesn’t have the ability to recruit like crazy, and a quarterback, maybe he’s not as good a coach. But, you could say that about every single head coach out there.

It makes such a difference when you have the backing and the ability to say ‘look I’ve got a quarterback’. He’s got that now because I think he’s got time at USF, he has the ability to recruit at USF and he has arguably a top five quarterback in the country in Quinton Flowers.

CBS Local Sports: Flowers is a guy that’s been named to multiple award watch lists in the preseason, just how good of a season can he have?

Randy Cross: I think he’s expecting a huge season. Flowers is not the biggest guy in the world. He’s an amazing runner, he’s a very accurate passer, and he’s got very good receivers. The challenge for him will be to develop as a thrower into the 60 percent-plus club. If he can do that, he’s going to be doubly dangerous because he’s got some blazing speed.

You look at a guy that ran for as many yards as he did last year and passed for as many yards; overall, he accounted for 43 touchdowns. I’m expecting this kid to get off to a really hot start. If he gets off to the kind of hot start that he’s capable of, he can put himself in the same conversation as Lamar Jackson did last year where he plays so well that you can’t ignore what he’s doing when it comes to Heisman hype.

CBS Local Sports: The Bulls opponent in this opening week game, San Jose State, is coming off a couple of down years and just brought in a new coach in Brent Brennan. What do you expect from the Spartans this season?

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Randy Cross: They’re going to be a team that I think is going to play with a lot of enthusiasm and love for each other because that would be a direct reflection of the kind of person that Brent Brennan is. I’ve known Brent since he was a little kid. I think it was an amazing hire by San Jose State. He’s a really good meat-and-potatoes football coach who spent the last several years up at Oregon State with (Mike) Riley and company. After that experience, I really expect, in the long-term, them to be much, much improved.

In the short-term, they have an offensive line that’s back almost intact that can be a highlight for them. That means they’re going to be able to run the ball effectively. The question is going to be, can you hold onto the ball and can you make the big plays. That’s going to be incumbent upon him to be able to bring those kind of kids into San Jose State.

CBS Local Sports: Now looking at the AAC as a whole, USF is projected to come out of the East, but there’s some tough teams out West that they could face in a potential championship game match-up. Who do you see as the biggest threats in conference to the Bulls?

Randy Cross: You look at what Niumatalolo and Navy have done, everybody sort of automatically discounts them every year, but until further notice, they’re the team that you’ve got to beat in the West. Houston again is going to be really good. I think (Chad) Morris and SMU are really going to surprise a lot of people as to what kind of team they’re going to bring to the party.

So, you’ve got those teams coming from the West and then, don’t forget Temple. All they’ve done is won 10-plus games on the East side the last couple of years. Memphis is going to be much improved, I’ve got them in Week 1 on a Thursday night game against Louisiana-Monroe and I’m really looking forward to what kind of a team they put on the board. They could be the type of team that comes out of the West that no one is expecting.

CBS Local Sports: Overall, as the college football season gets set to kick-off, who are the teams that you have pegged as College Football Playoff contenders heading into the year?

Randy Cross: There’s a couple of automatics to consider just by virtue of the programs that have been built. Alabama and Nick Saban are kind of automatic when you go to the top four and that’s not a biased opinion, it’s just a cold hard fact because of the program and the reloading that they can do in that program.

I put Clemson now in that same sort of tier. I think Dabo Swinney and that football team are going to be able to reload at the skill positions and at quarterback. The schedule’s not the friendliest in the world but, you’ve got an offensive line that brings four of the five guys back you can buy that quarterback and that running game a lot of time.

I like what Florida State has done. I love what USC has quickly become again because, we forget how down they were, how disadvantaged they were there for a couple of years. The final team that I’m watching is Ohio State. I know Penn State beat them head-to-head but I look at Ohio State as being a team (especially the way they’re configured right now), it smells like one of those years that Urban Meyer does his best job.

CBS Local Sports: Last year we saw Chris Peterson and Washington crash the playoff party. Is there a team or teams out there that you see as a potential dark horse candidate for a playoff berth.

Randy Cross: Anybody out of the Big 12. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just, I think maybe we’ve come to expect a little less out of the Big 12. Oklahoma we think is going to be pretty good. Texas we think is going to be improved. If you had a dark horse team, I would go with Oklahoma State because I think Gundy and company have the potential and the schedule on their side that could make them a pretty tough team.

CBS Local Sports: Finally, who do you have as your top Heisman watch guys heading into the season?

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Randy Cross: Well, first of all, we won’t have any defensive players winning it so we cannot have that conversation, which is just fine with me. And, I think running backs are at a distinct disadvantage, unfortunately, so that almost eliminates them too unless someone has a 2,500 yard season. Maybe a guy like (Derrius) Guice at LSU if he runs wild will get some consideration. But, I look at Lamar Jackson, J.T. Barrett, Trace McSorely at Penn State, (Jake) Browning at Washington and either Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen, the LA boys. It’s all going to be about numbers. Unfortunately, if it was all just about numbers, then Luke Falk would get that kind of recognition, but he’s just not going to be on that kind of team that’s in the national spotlight enough to garner conversation.