Are you ready for some football?
If not, you will be—that’s a promise—by the time Raymond James Stadium rocks and rolls over the course of 48 hours in early September.
The fun starts when the Buccaneers open the NFL season with a primetime game against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Sept. 9. Two days later, the South Florida Bulls host the Florida Gators in what will be the first meeting between the teams in Tampa. The game begins at noon and will be televised nationally.
Both teams announced there will be full seating at Raymond James. The Bucs, who sold out both preseason and all eight regular season games by early June, have a season-ticket waiting list for the first time since 2003.
The Buccaneers have been building for another title run, and not just on the field. In the months following their Super Bowl victory, coach Bruce Arians received a raise and general manager Jason Licht had his contract extended.
Licht re-signed many key contributors on a championship team that returns every starter, including quarterback Tom Brady.
Life is good at One Buc Place, and so is Brady’s left knee. The quarterback, who turns 44 on Aug. 3, worked with the offense during mandatory minicamp in June and showed no ill effects from surgery performed shortly after the Super Bowl.
As for the contract extension, Brady previously said he would like to play until he is 45. The Bucs were happy to oblige. While the deal Brady signed with the team, last March, was good through this season, the new deal adds four years. However, in an accounting sleight of hand common throughout the league in dealing with the salary cap, the final three years are voidable, which frees up $19 million in cap space this season. Essentially, Brady signed a one-year extension that takes him through 2022, his age-45 season.
The deal’s structure allowed the Bucs, who began training camp July 25, to re-sign several key players. Among them were edge rusher Shaq Barrett, linebacker Lavonte David and offensive lineman Donovan Smith. Tight end Rob Gronkowski also re-upped for another year.
Receiver Chris Godwin got a hefty raise. After earning a little more than $2 million in 2020, he was franchise-tendered and will receive nearly $16 million in 2021.
With the league having canceled last year’s preseason schedule due to the pandemic, it took time for Brady and the offense to gel. When it did, there was no slowing them down as the Bucs scored at least 30 points in each of their last seven games, including the playoffs.
With all the key playmakers on both sides of scrimmage returning, there is no reason not to think the Bucs will pick up where they left off. Hence, it might be no surprise if Tampa Bay enjoys another Super Bowl run.
Jeff Scott’s first season at USF was full of unforeseen challenges and uncertainty. The Bulls went 1-8 during a season that included two virus-related cancellations. There also were a couple of weeks when the virus, contact tracing and injuries left the depth chart paper-thin.
As the Bulls prepare for their 25th season, the atmosphere is like night and day. Strict day-to-day health protocols have given way to a sense of normalcy around the football complex.
Scott has a deeper and more talented team, which he repeatedly praised during a productive spring.
In particular, Scott was impressed with the play of a secondary that has been bolstered by transfers Will Jones (Kansas State), Matthew Hill (Auburn) and Christian Williams (Miami). He also was pleased with how the quarterbacks have performed. Junior Cade Fortin, who transferred from North Carolina before last season and endured an injury-riddled 2020, could be the face of the offense.
Fortin will have some competition, though, and that’s a good thing. Sophomore, and Miami transfer, Jarren Williams, who started for the Hurricanes in 2019, also impressed Scott during the spring. Sophomore Katravis Marsh, who started one game for the Bulls last season, certainly will be in the mix as well.
Returning receivers Bryce Miller, Xavier Weaver and Omarion Dollison repeatedly came up with big plays during the spring regardless of who was at quarterback.
Building depth throughout the roster and adding size on both lines are two things that Scott saw as critical needs before the season. There is still work to be done in those areas, but there is a noticeable difference when compared to last year’s squad.
While Scott has placed his stamp on the program and has it heading in the right direction, victories might be tough to come by. That will especially be the case in September when the Bulls play an early nonconference schedule that includes the season opener at North Carolina State (Sept. 2), the visit from the Gators and a trip to Brigham Young at the end of the month.
The Bulls also face what are projected to be the top four teams in the American Athletic Conference: defending champ Cincinnati, Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist.
It all adds up to a challenge, but that’s what Scott wants. He has given USF fans many reasons to feel good about where the Bulls are headed. ♦