TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Unbeaten South Florida is not so far removed from lean times that center Cameron Ruff has forgotten what it’s like to be a heavy underdog.
The 18th-ranked Bulls (5-0, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) went 2-10 when Ruff — one of eight USF starters who already have their college degrees — was a freshman in 2013.
The following year, USF endured the last of four consecutive losing seasons that humbled what for more than a decade generally had been regarded as the fastest growing football programs in the country.
So when Charlie Strong preaches struggling Cincinnati (2-4, 0-2) can’t be taken lightly this week because of how far the Bulls have come over the past two-plus seasons, the coach’s message is an easy sell.
“It’s a different mentality you have to have,” Ruff said looking ahead to Saturday night’s game against the Bearcats, who’ve dropped three straight, including last week’s 28-point weather-shortened loss to UCF, which gained over 500 yards and scored 51 points in just three quarters.
“I remember being part of the 2-10 team,” Ruff added. “Now that you’re on the flip side of everything, you’re expecting that other team is going to prepare for you like it’s a championship game.”
Strong, in his first season at USF, inherited a team that won a school-record 11 games a year ago. The Bulls have won 10 in a row — the nation’s second-longest winning streak behind reigning national champion Clemson’s 11 — and can match the best start in USF by beating Cincinnati.
“We know this,” Strong said, sizing up the Bearcats, who’ve lost to three other teams (No. 17 Michigan, No. 22 UCF, No. 25 Navy) currently ranked in the Top 25. “We’re going to get their best because of who we are.”
“We don’t really look at it as pressure. We look at it as us just playing ball,” the center said. “That’s what our mentality has to be. If you start thinking about the pressure, thinking about messing up, then that’s going to become reality.”
Things to watch:
USF ranks 10th nationally in total offense, averaging nearly 511 yards per game. The Bulls have scored at least 30 points in 22 consecutive games, one shy of the longest such streak in college football since 1936. Oregon did it 23 straight times over the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The last time USF failed to score 30-plus was Nov. 7, 2015, in a 22-17 victory at East Carolina, where the Bulls won 61-31 last week.
Cincinnati is playing an undefeated, ranked team from Florida for the second straight week. The Bearcats fell at home to UCF 51-23 last week. This is their first visit to Tampa since 2015, when they lost to USF 65-27. The 51 points allowed last week were their most since that game. Through six games, they’ve been outscored in the first quarter 62-24 and yielded an average of 41.8 points in their four losses.
QB Hayden Moore accounted for most of Cincinnati’s offense vs UCF. He threw for 278 yards and a TD, while also running for a career-best 75 yards and two TDs. He completed passes to 10 different receivers for the second straight game. With no running game of consequence, the Bearcats have relied on him to pretty much be their offense.
“Hayden did a really good job last week having patience in pocket, taking what’s there,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “Again, we’ve grown. … There’s progression in everything we’re doing, noticeably on the offensive line and our quarterback and his play and understanding the offense and what we need to do with the ball.”
USF dual-threat QB Quinton Flowers has thrown for 934 yards and 10 TDs vs. two interceptions. He’s also run for 395 yards and five TDs. The Bulls have rushed for over 300 yards in three consecutive games, with RBs Darius Tice (team-leading 438 yards, seven TDs) and D’Ernest Johnson (432 yards, four TDs) leading the way.
Cincinnati is in its first season under Fickell, a former Ohio State assistant. The Bearcats are one of three teams still winless in AAC play, along with Connecticut and Tulsa, and have lost six straight leagues dating to last season.
“It’s about gaining some confidence. I think that’s where we’re at right now,” Fickell said. “Sometimes you’re put in a tough situation and your confidence gets knocked down a little bit.”
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP—Top25.