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Get used to it, big boys: USF now a contender

By JOHN ROMANO, jromano@sptimes.com
Published November 28, 2006


History, we can all agree, is not on their side.

The South Florida Bulls do not have titles hanging from their walls or the ghosts of Heisman Trophy winners walking their halls. They do not have the prestige of a Florida State or the popularity of a University of Miami.

All they have is today, and, really, what's wrong with that?

For today, the Bulls are the second-best team in the state. They are better than Miami and more productive than Florida State.

Today, they are 8-4 and coming off their second upset of a top 10 team in as many seasons. They are heading toward another bowl bid and are a dropped two-point conversion from a top 25 ranking.

This team without much of a past has people talking about its future, and that may be the most remarkable of Jim Leavitt's many accomplishments.

"It's only a matter of time," Leavitt said by phone Monday, while cruising down the road to knock on another recruit's door. "That's what I've always told recruits. That, back when I was in high school, Florida, Florida State and Miami weren't very good. Now, they are three of the best programs in the nation.

"We've got all the resources we need to do the same thing. So I tell recruits the same thing today that I've told them all along. It's only a matter of time."

And, around USF, time flies. Ten years ago, the Bulls existed only in theory. Six years ago, they were a nondescript Division I-AA team. Two months ago, they were lamenting a pair of heartbreaking losses.

And yet, today, they have made Miami jealous and FSU self-conscious. While their in-state neighbors are in retreat, the Bulls are kicking in doors.

"We're not going to talk down Florida State or Miami," Leavitt said. "We're going to talk up South Florida."

Four years ago, USF beat a top 25 team for the first time. Last season, the Bulls claimed their first top 10 victim. And on Saturday at West Virginia, USF took down a top 10 team on the road.

The Bulls have beaten every team in the Big East in the past two years and have held their own against the Big 12 and the ACC.

"This isn't a hypothetical anymore. This is fact," Leavitt said. "We play in a big-time conference, and we're winning games."

Okay, so USF is not yet ready to be called a national power.

In reality, the Bulls lag behind Miami and FSU in nearly every way other than wins and losses this season.

But what they have done in the past two months is wedge their way into the conversation. They have taken advantage of the missteps by the Seminoles and Hurricanes to position themselves as more than just a cute upstart.

For 25 years, Florida, Florida State and Miami have co-existed as the state's Big Three in college football.

Can we actually consider the possibility that one day there will be a Big Four?

"I believe so," Leavitt said. "But the only way you become a Big Four is by beating the Big Three. We've sort of come around the corner at them, but we're not there yet. We're getting closer. We're in the same room. We're not standing outside the door anymore."

USF lost 27-7 to Miami last year in its only appearance against the big boys. And the Bulls do not get another crack until 2010-11 when they go to Florida and 2012-13 in a home-and-home series against Miami.

Does it seem improbable USF could be on a similar level to the Gators or Hurricanes in five or six years? Sure it does.

On the other hand, would you have believed five or six years ago that USF would be a contender in a major conference today?

Look, Leavitt understands the stakes, and he knows the history. He was here in the 1970s as a quarterback at Dixie Hollins High, and he saw the growing pains of three universities known more for potholes than production.

FSU was 4-29 in the three seasons before Bobby Bowden's arrival and was still dreaming of finishing a season in the top 20.

Miami was going through seven coaches in 10 seasons, and the campus was buzzing with talk of dropping the football program.

Florida was crawling toward the 1980s with 0-10-1 record.

Yet, by the mid 1990s, all three had won national championships.

As giddy as these moments seem, the Bulls are still a long way off. They are not yet recruiting the type of athletes the big teams get.

But if you have any doubt of the program's direction, you need only listen to the rumors of Miami poking around Leavitt's door and of Alabama making another run at USF's coach.

Leavitt, who turns 50 next week, seems pleased to mull the possibilities of, once again, being a hot coaching commodity. It's good for USF's program. It's good for his ego. In the past, it has been good for his wallet.

"It's fun to think about. It's fun to imagine the possibilities," Leavitt said. "But when it comes right down to it, I don't think I could do it. I love this place. And the people have been good to me. The hardest part of human nature is always thinking somebody has it better. You tell me, what job out there is better?

"We're creating history here."

FAST FACTS

Romano's take

UF: USC + agents = hope.

USF: Would've been No. 1 if Ron Zook had survived.

FSU: Emerald Bowl? I'd prefer one of Emeril's bowls.

UM: For $25 donation, you, too, can fire Larry Coker.

UCF: Katherine Harris of state football polls.

. FAST FACTS

How they stack up

We're not the only ones saying USF had a better season than Miami or FSU. The Bulls are ranked ahead of both programs in all six of the computer rankings used by the BCS, as well as the Harris and Associated Press polls.

Harris

AP Anderson/Hester Sagarin Billingsley Matrix Massey Wolfe
UF 4 4 4 6 4 3 3 4
USF 33 30 36 41 28 40 41 37
FSU x x 55 51 49 55 53 60
UM x x 62 59 41 66 62 65