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Hey, nation! Take notice of the Bulls

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 17, 2002

TAMPA -- Hey, you.

TAMPA -- Hey, you.

Yeah, you. The guy in the Naugahyde sports coat. Either you're a bowl representative or you're from Century 21. Either way, here's a question for you.

What do you think of South Florida now?

And, you over there.

Yeah, you. The guy in the press box. Tell me, is that a ballot in your pocket or are you just collecting receipts? If you're a voter in one of the national polls, were you paying attention to the latest candidate from the Sunshine State?

And what do you think of the Bulls?

What did the rest of Conference USA think? What did the NFL scouts think? What, pray tell, did Beano Cook think?

Was anybody watching?

Was anybody impressed?

Forgive USF, but frankly, this is a team that craves a little attention.

The Bulls have come so far, so fast, and somehow, they have managed to do so without anyone noticing. Not the bowlers and not the pollsters.

It tends to leave a 6-year-old program hopping up and down and pleading for a little bit of attention.

Quietly, under cover of the night, the Bulls have turned into something admirable.

Consider Saturday night, when USF dismantled a Bowling Green team that had spent much of the season as the darling of college football.

The Bulls won, again. Marquel Blackwell was a thrill ride, again. The defense stunted a pretty fair opponent, again.

Bowling Green's Josh Harris, a pistol of a quarterback, looked like just another guy in pumpkin pants.

And you wonder.

Was it all invisible?

It is time for America to take note of USF's program, which has become the blueprint for all new programs to follow. It is time this team got some bowl consideration and bowl validation.

The Bulls are 8-2, losing only to Oklahoma and Arkansas. They have won 12 of their past 18 against Division I-A teams. For three seasons, half of the program's existence, they have been unbeaten at home.

USF has beaten three teams, Bowling Green, Southern Miss and Northern Illinois, currently getting votes in the polls.

Yet USF never has received a Top 25 vote. Not one in either poll. It hasn't seen a lot of guys in the neon bowl jackets, either. There seemed to be a feeling of giddiness Saturday night that representatives of the Motor City Bowl and GMAC Bowl showed up.

As a program, USF is like that eternal tree falling in the forest. Unless it falls on a voter, it doesn't make a sound.

"It's sad," Blackwell said. "You see Northern Illinois up there, and we ran them over. And Southern Miss and these guys.

"I sit and wonder what's going on in their heads."

"We definitely should be in the Top 25," running back Clenton Crossley said. "It doesn't matter where. I just want to get some votes."

One reason, the suspicion lingers, is voters are a geographically challenged lot, and they keep looking for South Florida somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

The other is this: They haven't paid attention to the quickness of the construction. Have you ever driven down a street you don't travel every day and looked, in amazement, at a large building that appeared since the last time you went past? That's USF's program.

What was it? Ten minutes ago, maybe 15, this whole thing started? USF's program was built in a microwave.

That should be the school motto: Just Beat and Serve.

College football, at its core, is a game of tradition.

It's a sport in which people still salute the crinkled black-and-white films and still tell stories passed down from their grandfathers on what happened back in '57 and how it avenged what happened back in '43.

For that reason, it's hard for a new program to get any attention. Especially one from this state, where Miami, Florida State and Florida have spent the past two decades taking turns playing for national championships.

Sometimes, however, the important thing isn't the size of the building. It's the speed with which it went up.

USF merits a little consideration for that. It should get a smattering of votes, maybe enough to finish the season in the Top 25. And it deserves an invitation to a minor bowl.

Put it this way: There will be 20 teams going to bowls this season that aren't as good as the Bulls.

Oh, there is a ways to go. Coach Jim Leavitt suggests the road ahead is longer and rougher than the road traveled.

For one thing, Saturday night was the last home game for Blackwell. Three of the starting four defensive linemen leave.

Who knows?

Maybe that's why Conference USA wouldn't let USF play until next season.

A shame, that. Looking across Conference USA, you can picture USF playing TCU with the league title on the line.

Maybe then, someone would notice.

As long as they played it at Beano's house, that is.

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