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Matchup with young FAU team has USF feeling nostalgic
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 6, 2007
[Ted McLaren | Times]
Coach Jim Leavitt isn't letting his No. 6 USF squad look past Florida Atlantic, a program that resembles the Bulls from years back. The Owls' football program started in 2002.
TAMPA - The storyline is familiar.
A fledgling football program in talent-rich Florida, buoyed by a surprising win against a major-conference opponent, seeks further validation by trying to knock off a nationally ranked opponent in its off-campus stadium.
No. 6 USF no longer plays the part of the fledgling program. Starting today, the Bulls are the nationally ranked opponent trying to avoid the kind of upsets they've built a national reputation by making.
You see it with pro athletes, with politicians, with everyday corporate business: Look closely enough at your competition, eventually you'll be up against a younger version of yourself.
In this case, that would be Florida Atlantic, that rare college football program that makes precocious USF look old. The Bulls started their football program in 1997, the Owls in 2002.
"I'm so proud of what they've done up there," FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger said this week. "I feel like they are an older brother."
The sibling programs meet today at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, with FAU (3-2) well aware of how quickly a win against the Bulls (4-0) would accelerate their progress.
"It would give us a gigantic shove in the right direction," Schnellenberger said. "We're facing a major challenge, obviously, to play against the sixth-rated team in the United States."
The Bulls, too, face a major challenge they haven't faced before: living up to the unprecedented expectations that come with their ranking and the national attention on the program since its win against then-No. 5 West Virginia on Sept. 28.
There has been talk of an undefeated season, of a Big East championship, but USF coach Jim Leavitt has been very publicly focused on keeping his team's attention on this week and nothing beyond.
"This is a very good football team, and it's going to be a very difficult challenge for us," Leavitt said. "It's been difficult the last couple of weeks, and our players will have to play at a very high level (today)."
In comparing the two young programs, FAU faces an uphill battle keeping up with USF's rapid ascent, with two areas in particular creating problems.
The most difficult is conference affiliation: in their third year of conference play in 2005, the Bulls joined the Big East, whose champion plays in a BCS bowl; the Owls are now in their third year in the Sun Belt, a conference whose champion plays in the New Orleans Bowl, a Dec. 21 game against an at-large team from USF's old league, Conference USA.
The other hurdle is fan support. In 11 seasons, USF's lowest announced home attendance is 21,056, for a 2001 game against Liberty. FAU's modest home stadium, 20 miles south of its Boca Raton campus, only seats 20,500, and today might be its first sellout. In five seasons at Lockhart, the closest the Owls have come was 16,421 fans for a 2005 loss to Oklahoma State.
The stadium is actually one area in which FAU can move ahead the Bulls, by having a field of their own. FAU's trustees have given provisional approval for a $62-million, 30,000-seat on-campus stadium that could be in place by 2010.
FAU presents a danger, but the Owls' three wins are against teams with a combined record of 2-12; USF is one of four teams in the nation with two wins against ranked opponents, along with LSU, California and South Carolina.
And if the Owls fall short against the Bulls this time, they'll have other chances to catch up to USF on the field. FAU is scheduled to play in Tampa in 2010 and 2013.
"USF is a great example of what Florida Atlantic could be, should we do the right things," Schnellenberger said.