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This week is make or break

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

TAMPA -- Forget about Oklahoma. Forget about Arkansas, Southern Miss, East Carolina and everyone else for that matter. Forget about the big games, the Conference USA games and the little games. The most important football game of South Florida's season is Saturday at North Texas.

What's so meaningful about a game against North Texas, a team with a 1-4 record from the piddling Sun Belt Conference, when USF has many higher-profile games? Everything.

Saturday's meeting in Denton is the telltale predictor of what will become of USF's season. Psychologically, it is far and away the most difficult on the schedule, coming after the mega-hyped Arkansas and Oklahoma games and a week before the game with C-USA power and budding rival Southern Miss at Raymond James Stadium.

It is the game many will overlook. Yet it, as much as any, will determine whether USF (2-2) has a successful season.

If the Bulls lose -- they're only a two-point favorite and playing their third straight road game -- they fall to 2-3 with three straight losses and flagging confidence.

Emerge with a win and USF is back over .500, springboarding into a string of games against future C-USA foes with four of the remaining six at home.

Virtually everyone expected the Bulls to be 2-2 at this point. The rest of the season is harder to predict. An 8-3 record, matching last season against a tougher schedule, is attainable. Lose Saturday, however, and sub-.500 suddenly looks attainable, too.

STILL LEADERLESS: Conference USA's five-person search committee has yet to select a successor to commissioner Mike Slive, who left in July for the same post with the Southeastern Conference. A USA Today story Thursday said the league is considering two women among six or seven finalists, C-USA interim commissioner Brenda Weare and Atlantic 10 Conference commissioner Linda Bruno. A decision is expected in two to three weeks.

BIG NEWS: It generated little more than raised eyebrows in Gainesville. After all, it's just two games to be played six and seven years from now against a second-year Division I-A school.

At USF, though, it's huge news: The Bulls will play the Gators! Fledgling USF (football birth: 1997) will take on state flagship school Florida (football birth: 1906) in Gainesville in 2008 and 2009.

The Bulls rapidly have ascended from inception to Division I-A to high-profile games against Arkansas, Oklahoma and Alabama (next season) to membership in C-USA (starting next season) and now will play one of the state's Big Three. So far, USF football is right on track.

CROSS COUNTRY: Christa Benton was a high school superstar at Keswick Christian in St. Petersburg. Two years later, across the bay, Benton is developing into a college standout at USF.

The diminutive sophomore has been the top runner for the women's cross-country team, placing first overall in 17:54 (5K) at the 10-team Bulldog Stampede on Sept. 14 in Athens, Ga., and 14th in 18:54.5 (5K) at the 26-team Great American Cross Country Festival on Sept. 27 in Charlotte, N.C. Next up is the Gator Invitational on Saturday in Gainesville.

HOOPS MADNESS: For the second straight year the men's and women's basketball teams will open preseason practice with Midnight Mania, at 10:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Sun Dome. Numerous activities and contests are planned for the free event before the teams take the court at midnight.

AJAX: Former men's basketball player Altron Jackson made his pro debut Saturday for Kaposvar of the Hungarian A League. Jackson, C-USA's all-time leading scorer but not selected in the NBA draft, had 25 points (11 of 21 shooting) in 34 minutes.

-- Pete Young covers USF sports. He can be reached at (813) 226-3346 or via e-mail at young@sptimes.com.

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