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Bulls get a little respect in polls

USF draws Top 25 votes for first time and does even better in computer rankings.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 18, 2002


TAMPA -- With stunning velocity, South Florida has played its way onto the national college football map.

In both major wire service polls released Sunday, the Bulls, who whipped then-No. 25 (ESPN/USA Today poll) Bowling Green 29-7 on Saturday, received the first votes in school history. USF, 8-2 with six straight wins, is in its sixth season and second in Division I-A.

In the AP media poll, the Bulls got four votes, placing them in a three-way tie for 38th (13th among those also receiving votes) with Kentucky and Northern Illinois. In the ESPN/USA Today poll USF received two votes, meaning one of the 61 coaches ranked them No. 24 or two ranked them No. 25.

"How about that," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "It doesn't mean a whole lot to me. I'd just as soon wait to the end of the year and see how we are. We're not controlled by things like that.

"I always felt we were a decent team. I don't need the polls to tell me that."

Though receiving votes so quickly in the program's development is a noteworthy milestone, USF rightfully could expect better recognition.

In the ESPN/USA Today poll, the Bulls are 40th, one spot behind Bowling Green (8-2) and five behind Northern Illinois (8-3). Besides having a better record than the Huskies, the Bulls beat UNI 37-6 Sept. 7.

Several other mid-major teams having seasons similar to USF's also are receiving more respect from voters. Boise State, whose loss mirrored one of USF's two, a blowout at Arkansas, is No. 21 (ESPN/USA Today) and 23 (AP). Hawaii (8-2) is No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, and Marshall (7-2), which lost to 3-8 Akron two weeks ago, is receiving more votes than USF in both polls.

"With the way we beat (Bowling Green), we should be in the Top 25," USF defensive end Chris Daley said on the field after USF's dominating performance Saturday.

The Bulls are No. 31 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, according to www.collegebcs.com, and their average ranking among the BCS computers is No. 24. They are No. 22 on the New York Times computer.

The relatively low poll rankings hurt USF's chances of securing a bowl bid. All bids to the 28 bowls are tied to a conference, but with the strong possibility that at least one conference won't have enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill its tie-ins, USF is vying for an at-large invitation.

If the Bulls win Saturday at Houston (4-6) to finish 9-2, they would be the strongest candidate among potential at-large teams based on their on-field performance. Other factors, however, can come into play, such as bowls' reluctance to schedule rematches and the size of a school's fan base.

First, however, USF must beat Houston, and there must be an open bid. The Big Ten and Mountain West are the conferences most likely to fail to fulfill their bowl tie-ins. In each league, two slots are open (maybe three in the Big Ten) and two schools are trying to fill them.

In the Big Ten, Wisconsin needs a win over visiting Minnesota on Saturday to become bowl eligible, and Purdue must beat visiting Indiana. If Ohio State beats Michigan, however, it will qualify for the national championship game (Fiesta Bowl), which will bump the rest of the league's teams up a rung on the Big Ten's bowl ladder, meaning there would be at least one open slot even if Purdue and Wisconsin both win.

In the Mountain West, BYU must win Saturday at Utah to become bowl eligible, and New Mexico must win one of its final two games, at Colorado State or home against Wyoming.

The Big Ten's last two bowl tie-ins are the Music City Bowl (Nashville) and Motor City Bowl (Detroit), which had a representative at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. The Mountain West's last tie-ins are the San Francisco Bowl and Seattle Bowl. There also is a slim chance Conference USA might not fulfill its five tie-ins, meaning either the New Orleans Bowl or Hawaii Bowl is a remote possibility, and the SEC (Independence Bowl) could come up short.

PLAYMAKER: Junior safety J.R. Reed led the superlative defensive effort Saturday with a team-high 10 tackles, five passes defensed and an interception.

ONE MORE: Leavitt said his focal point in the locker room after thumping Bowling Green was the season finale at Houston. The Bulls hammered the Cougars 45-6 last season at home, and Leavitt emphasized how Houston, which has several coaches with ties to the Bulls and Leavitt, will be looking for revenge.

LEAGUE CHAMPS?: USF is in its last season as an independent before joining Conference USA, but the Bulls can win the unofficial league title. A win over Houston would make USF 4-0 against C-USA.

BALANCED ATTACK: The Bulls rushed for 163 yards against Bowling Green and continue to benefit from an improved running game. USF is averaging 178 rushing yards in the past six games after averaging 86 in the first four. Clenton Crossley had a season-high 90 on 19 carries Saturday.

BENCHED: Receiver Brian Fisher did not dress for the second time in four games for academic reasons. The scholastic foibles have contributed to a disappointing season for Fisher, a sophomore who Leavitt called the team's best offensive player during the preseason. He has 11 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown.

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