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USF — the best-kept secret in the FBS

Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

TAMPA — Raymond James Stadium has undergone a $140-million facelift, highlighted by two monstrous HD video boards with 28,000 square feet of display space.

Sure enough, there’s plenty to see.

The College Football Playoff National Championship Game will be held at the facility that already has hosted a pair of Super Bowls.

It’s home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are poised to make a move in the NFC South Division with a roster of dynamic young players, including quarterback Jameis Winston.

It’s also where you’ll find the Football Bowl Subdivision’s best-kept secret.

The University of South Florida Bulls — shhhhhh! — have a team well worth watching. It probably sounds ridiculous to mention USF as a legitimate national-title contender, but you know what? The Bulls could be favored to win 11 of their 12 regular-season games.

Certainly, they will have underdog status on Sept. 24 when the Florida State Seminoles roll into Tampa … but what if USF wins that game? What then? Anyone who saw USF’s offense operate late last season — led by quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and wide receiver Rodney Adams — knows the Bulls can’t be easily stopped.

Talk about a potential springboard.

USF could well be the thinking man’s surprise team for 2016. Already, Ralph D. Russo, lead college football writer for The Associated Press, has projected USF over Houston in the American Athletic Conference’s championship game.

The Bulls were 8-5 last year, winning seven of their last eight regular-season games, after enduring four consecutive losing records. Now there are expectations, and Bulls coach Willie Taggart likes the buzz as he enters his fourth season at USF.

“I think when you win and see how fun it is, it’s kind of contagious,’’ Taggart said. “You get that first win out, it’s kind of like getting that first olive out of the jar. The rest of them will come out pretty easy.

“Our guys started to get excited and that has helped the competition. Some of our guys are up for certain awards and (other players) want to be part of that, too. It’s part of the culture we created.’’

At the same time, Taggart is a realist, stating, “We haven’t really accomplished anything yet.’’

Even as USF celebrates its 20th anniversary season, even as the program continues to amaze because of its rapid growth, the Bulls still haven’t won a conference championship.

From Conference USA to the Big East to the AAC … and no trophies. Even in the 2007 season when the program attained a No. 2 national ranking, the Bulls couldn’t hook their horns around a crown.

Taggart knows what he wants this season:

“Winning the conference is our goal. That’s been our goal every year and we’ve been making progress toward it every year. We already talk about you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. Nobody stays the same. And our football team wants to get better.

“Winning the (AAC) East and being in the conference championship game will help us be better than what we were last year. We came up short and we don’t want to be short this year.’’

Taggart said he doesn’t want to hear about the “good job’’ USF pulled off last season. That leads to complacency. He doesn’t want good. He wants great.

“We can’t settle for all those pats on the back,’’ Taggart said. “We’ve got to go out there and do something.’’

As a program, USF has done something.

How’s this for a lineup: It has won on the road against Florida State, Miami, Auburn and Notre Dame. It has defeated Clemson in a bowl game. It has also defeated West Virginia and Louisville … but it still hasn’t won a conference title.

This looks like a team that could lift some hardware. Defenses will be hard-pressed to shut down Flowers, Mack and Adams. If USF’s defense is up to the task, this is a double-digit-victory team.

It can win a conference championship — and maybe more.

It could be quite a show for those new video boards at Raymond James Stadium.

There’s plenty to see at USF.

Get the picture?

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