- Time and date: Friday, November 17 at 9:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: Alamodome — San Antonio, TX
- Spread: UTSA (-16)
- Over/under: 67.5
- All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
The AAC race is set for a dramatic finish. Heading into Week 12, three teams are still unscathed in conference play, and all three can enter Week 13 wielding unbeaten AAC records.
One of those three teams is UTSA. The Roadrunners stumbled off to a 1-3 start in non-conference play but immediately turned the trajectory of their season after a convenient Week 5 bye. Since that bye week, UTSA has rattled off six consecutive victories and controls its own destiny for the AAC Championship Game — in its inaugural year in the conference. However, all six teams the Roadrunners disposed of during this win streak are sub .500. One of their greater challenges of 2023 visits the Alamodome on Friday night.
South Florida improved to .500 last Saturday after besting Temple, 27-10. Under first-year head coach Alex Golesh, the Bulls are granted an opportunity not many members on the team are familiar with — clinching bowl eligibility. South Florida hasn’t attained the 6-win threshold since 2018, but by pulling off an upset in San Antonio, the Bulls can finally find themselves bowling again.
South Florida Bulls outlook
South Florida (5-5, 3-3 AAC) is lurking in unfamiliar territory — in a good way. Until Week 4, the Bulls rode an FBS-worst 18-game losing streak to other FBS opponents. Now, this same program is on the fringe of its first bowl appearance in five years.
Alex Golesh has worked wonders on this team since arriving from Tennessee last December. The Josh Heupel disciple brought those signature spread, up-tempo schemes over to Tampa, and South Florida’s offense saw dramatic improvement. The Bulls are averaging over 30 points per game for the first time since 2017, and they’ve exceeded 40 points three times in conference play. Against FBS competition, South Florida approximates 20.7 seconds per play which is second in the nation behind Jacksonville State, and that tempo tends to wear defenses out as games progress.
The Bulls have the ideal centerpiece for this offense with one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the country. Byrum Brown is as agile and elusive as they come at the position, scrambling for 659 yards to rank sixth in the FBS among all quarterbacks. And if sacks didn’t negate rushing yards, Brown’s numbers would be significantly greater. Pass protection is one of the weak links of the South Florida offense, yielding 3.8 sacks per game — bottom 10 in the FBS. The unit saw linear improvement throughout the season in this department, but it was back to square one last week when six sacks were surrendered to Temple.
Brown is a playmaker with his feet, but he also can take over games through the air, especially by creating extra time in the pocket for his receivers to gain separation. Brown delivered his second consecutive and fourth total 300-yard showing of the season last Saturday, tallying 316 passing yards in the win over Temple. Accuracy has been a specialty of his lately, and he rides a three-game streak of completing at least 69 percent of passes heading into Friday.
As dominant as Brown is in the run game, he isn’t even South Florida’s leading rusher. The Bulls present another skill position threat in Nay’Quan Wright who is fourth in the conference in rushing in 2023. The 5’9”, 204 pound back is a focal point of the offense, and he was the difference between a win and loss in late October against UConn, rushing for 186 yards and two touchdowns in a comeback victory.
In the receiving game, the Bulls attack with Sean Atkins as the No. 1 target. Atkins has more than double the receptions as anyone else on the team this year, and he’s closing in on 1,000 yards after a career-high 169-yard outburst against Temple last week. He is supported by deep threat Naiem Simmons and North Carolina transfer Khafre Brown in the receiving room, and this position group will be essential to pulling off the upset when factoring in UTSA’s run vs. pass defense metrics.
South Florida’s defense hasn’t exactly been a juggernaut. The Bulls allowed at least 56 points in three of their last five conference games and currently rank 7th-to-last nationally in scoring defense as a result. Much stronger showings were witnessed in recent wins over Temple and UConn, but they held both teams below 24 points due to extraordinarily high turnover outputs — registering four in each contest. South Florida must learn to generate a more consistent method of stops, as poor coverage frequently prevents the team from getting off the field.
The Bulls field the second-worst passing defense in the country at 303 yards per game, and UTSA is more than capable of shredding secondaries. Yes, this is the same South Florida team that made Alabama’s passing attack look incompetent in Week 3, but that pressure hasn’t remained steady since that fateful September afternoon. The Bulls have only produced three sacks in their last four contests, so ramping that up is essential to prevent another UTSA offensive explosion.
One name to watch on the defense is nickelback Daquan Evans, who leads the team in a variety of categories. The versatile defensive back reigns supreme on the Bulls with 11 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, seven pass deflections. Free safety Jaelen Stokes is another havoc causer with two interceptions, a forced fumble, and fumble recovery in a breakout junior campaign.
UTSA Roadrunners outlook
UTSA (7-3, 6-0 AAC) has never lost a conference game since joining the AAC. Upgrading conferences isn’t always the easiest transition — and the Roadrunners are the only one of the six AAC newcomers to have an overall record of at least .500 in the new league. Conference titles have become the standard under Jeff Traylor at UTSA as the program captured them in 2021 and 2022, and they control their own destiny for another appearance with just South Florida and Tulane looming this November.
The level of competition hasn’t exactly been the stiffest on this 6-game win streak as all six opponents are currently below .500, but UTSA is doing exactly what a good team should. Five of those six opponents were defeated by at least 14 points and the other one was an 8-point victory over North Texas where the lead was 17 entering the fourth quarter.
The greatest differences between non-conference UTSA and current UTSA are (1) the level of execution and (2) the turnover battle. Starting with the level of execution, the Roadrunners have become an automatic 30-point machine. They’ve registered at least 34 points in all six conference games, averaging 39.7 points per contest against AAC opponents — demonstrating impressive week-to-week consistency.
Quarterback Frank Harris remains the levelheaded leader of the offense, and there’s a reason UTSA has won 17 of its last 19 games with him as the starter. Harris is capable of slinging the rock for 300 yards, as demonstrated in wins over Temple and East Carolina, but UTSA won’t force 30 pass attempts from their seventh-year senior if they’re not needed.
The run game is clicking to an impressive extent right now, and it’s an incredibly deep group. Kevorian Barnes is expected to return to the lineup Friday after missing the Rice game and he posted 129 yards and two touchdowns in his last action two weeks ago. Against the Owls, the duo of Rocko Griffin and Robert Henry held down the fort to combine for 144 yards and two scores. Even Harris has dabbled more in the run game lately, posting two of his three highest rushing totals of the season in the last two weeks.
One other major factor to keep an eye on in the offense is wide receiver Joshua Cephus, who is 42 yards away from becoming the program’s standalone leader in career receiving yards. Cephus is a consistent threat in the offense, totaling at least 50 yards in all but one outing this year. UTSA designs many passing plays for him, but if the Roadrunners are taking deeper shots, Devin McCuin and Tykee Ogle-Kellogg should get heavily involved.
As referenced earlier, winning the turnover battle has become a staple of UTSA games lately. The Roadrunners were one of the last teams to force a turnover this year, failing to snatch one in their favor until Week 4. Since, they’ve averaged two per game in AAC play — only losing one turnover battle since conference play commenced.
Creating turnovers always starts with pressure and no player in the AAC is better at generating this than UTSA outside linebacker Trey Moore. Moore is second in the FBS in sacks with 14.0, and he added two to an already-outstanding season total last week. Moore is a three-time recipient of the AAC Defensive Player of the Week and he has three games with at least three sacks this year. Opposing offensive lines have no answers for his tremendous bend and spin moves, and Moore is near-certain to cause problems in any given game — especially against a bottom 10 line in sacks allowed per game.
Thanks to Moore’s weekly endeavors, UTSA is tied for second in the FBS in sacks per game. Focusing on him opens up opportunities for other pass rushers, and five different Roadrunners tallied a sack last week. Jimmori Robinson is another linebacker frequently putting quarterbacks under duress, showing 4.0 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss on the year. Containing the edges and keeping Brown in the pocket is a focus for UTSA this week, so Moore and Robinson will have to match the quarterback’s speed when dialing up pressure.
Key names to watch in coverage include cornerbacks Kam Alexander and Nicktroy Fortune. Alexander is the AAC leader in pass breakups with 11, and Fortune could be on that leaderboard if quarterbacks targeted him often as he does a tremendous job of blanketing No. 1 receivers.
UTSA hasn’t lost a conference game in the Alamodome since 2019.
The Roadrunners are one of the hottest teams in the country right now on a 6-game win streak and it’s been quite a dominant streak — refusing to trail in the second half once during the six games.
The offense will continue to click against a defense which consistently allows over 50 points, and Trey Moore and the pass rush should apply a fair amount of pressure on Byrum Brown, considering the litany of sacks South Florida surrenders. Brown and the skill positions are potent enough to generate a few touchdowns, but UTSA’s Frank Harris-led offense will thrive to a greater extent and produce their seventh-straight victory before the all-important matchup at Tulane.
Prediction: UTSA 42, South Florida 24