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USF, UCF are natural rivals, yes? Maybe not

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 17, 2005

"We expect it to be a heck of a game. We know they are going to bring their best effort. There's going to be a large crowd." - USF coach Jim Leavitt

TAMPA - Sorry, Central Florida fans. That morsel of generic excitement was from Sept.6, when Leavitt talked up last week's game with Division I-AA Florida A&M, which turned out to be a heck of a 37-3 game.

Fast-forward to this week, when Leavitt's Bulls play host to Interstate 4 rival UCF in a game the Knights have clamored for since USF launched its program in 1997. So what does Leavitt think about finally playing UCF?

"It's going to be a heck of a ballgame for both teams," Leavitt said, his words falling short of actual enthusiasm.

It's not that Leavitt isn't taking the game - or the threat of losing to a program that has lost 16 in a row - seriously. He admitted being tired at Tuesday's news conference because he watched a lot of game tape and worked his players for more than three hours at that afternoon's practice. But in his public comments, Leavitt has gone out of his way to make it clear this is just another game for his Bulls.

"Now is there more to it for this game with the closeness and all of that? I guess it's probably natural," he said.

While Leavitt has been understated, UCF has been unabashedly eager for more than the two scheduled meetings, to make it an annual rivalry, something neither has. "I think everyone at UCF would like to see it every year," Knights coach George O'Leary said. "I don't foresee any problems. There is none at our end."

Leavitt, on the other hand, has said he'll wait to see what today's crowd is like even though indications are it will top 40,000 for only the third time in USF's history.

For many years, USF's players have heard talk from Orlando, questioning if the Bulls were dodging their closest competition. Both teams' bulletin boards have filled quickly this week with two programs eager to measure themselves.

"Ever since I've been here, there's been talk of a UCF-USF game: why we haven't ever played them, why they haven't played us, The War on I-4, all that stuff," Bulls senior guard Chris Carothers said. "I'm excited to go out there and have a chance to play them."

Some Bulls players have acknowledged a heightened interest. Quarterback Pat Julmiste said he saw UCF defensive end Kareem Reid, a friend from high school, in the crowd at last week's USF-FAMU game.

Ask the Bulls if this is now their biggest rivalry, they'll say it's a game they're pumped up for but stop short of using the R-word just yet.

"Rivalry? I don't know. Winning? Yes," running back Andre Hall said. "The rivalry deal, it takes a few years for it to become a real rivalry. Today, we just want to win."

Asked of the chances of the series being extended beyond its initial two-year contract, UCF athletic director Steve Orsini said he hopes the Bulls use UCF to honor their exit agreement with Conference USA, which requires five games with C-USA teams.

Gene McDowell, a former longtime UCF coach who called it out this week for allowing the young USF program to surpass it so quickly, said from an economic and fan perspective, it's a no-brainer, or at least should be.

"It'd be stupid for them not to play," McDowell said. "It doesn't cost anything for the visiting team to make the trip, and both sides are going to buy some tickets.

"I used to say M.T.M.S.: makes too much sense."

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