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Life in the Top 10 changes everything
By GARY SHELTON, Times Columnist
Published October 7, 2007
They won by 12. Only 12. College football being what it is, you may feel free to wonder what in the world was wrong with South Florida on Saturday.
Such is life in the Top 10.
For a change, the other team was the plucky underdog. This time, it was the vaunted Florida Atlantic Owls playing the role that USF has played so often, taking its best shot against a highly ranked opponent. This time, it was the FAU fans who were chanting "over" and "rated" in the direction of the USF team.
This, too, is life in the Top 10.
This time, it was the fans of USF who could be forgiven for looking nervously at the rankings and at the results and wondering how a wobbly victory over a lesser opponent would impress the voters. Considering Wisconsin's loss, will USF climb higher? Considering Boston College's victory, might USF slide back?
Again, welcome to life in the Top 10.
The neighborhood feels so new, and the surroundings seem so strange, that it can be difficult for a newcomer. As much as anything, that might explain why the Bulls struggled so much before finally finishing off FAU, 35-23.
For the Bulls, all of this is undiscovered territory. Here in the top T0, the other team is always energized, and the standards are always high. Here in the Top 10, there are afternoons - and perhaps Saturday was one of those - where survival is the only thing that matters.
In the end, USF at least managed that. A defense that had struggled for most of the second half made a big stop. An offense that was sloppy for most of the first half scored a clinching touchdown.
Before that, however, the afternoon was largely a struggle. The Bulls barely resembled the team that had impressed the nation by sweeping through Auburn, North Carolina and West Virginia. FAU played with the abandon of an upstart, and for the life of it, USF could not make the Owls go away. For most of the afternoon, it was hard to tell the front-runner in the Big East from a program in the Sun Belt.
Perhaps that is the lesson for USF. Being ranked in the Top 10 brings with it a new set of problems.
"Kids can't get up sky high every Saturday," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "We've been pretty high for three straight weeks. It's a new situation. Our kids are new to this. We have to play with the same intensity every week if we're going to maintain where we are, if we're going to get to where we want to go."
Oh, in a way, perhaps it is understandable. Before the season, Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said he thought this would be the Bulls' greatest challenge to get ready to play. And quarterback Matt Grothe went as far as to say that he didn't think last year's USF team could have beaten FAU the week after beating West Virginia.
Sometimes, success can be an obstacle, too. Remember, the Bulls were coming off the biggest victory in their history, and for the last week, most of the talk around Tampa Bay has been the varying degrees of wonderfulness of this player or that.
Then the Bulls walked out Saturday afternoon, and the fabric of a game felt a million light years from what it had been the previous week. Instead of a wild sellout crowd, there were 20,000 fans in the stands of a stadium mostly used for high school games and the occasional soccer match. It felt more like a county fair than a big game.
Except, evidently, to FAU.
Oh, Leavitt will tell you, again and again, that FAU's players played hard and played well. He will tell you how he hates the beauty pageant that the polls can turn into. He will tell you a lot of teams are good, and yes, the Owls are among them. "Everybody's good," he said.
And, yes, there is some truth to that. FAU played like a team that was weary of hearing so much talk about another newcomer from upstate. On the other hand, this is an Owls team that lost by 36 to Oklahoma State and by 28 to Kentucky.
You wonder: What did the West Virginia players think when they heard of this game? What did the players from Rutgers or Cincinnati think? For that matter, what did the Central Florida players think?
It is safe to say this: If USF is going to take a run at the Big East, if it is going to maintain itself as a Top 10 program, it has to play better than this. There seems to be something missing from the passing game. The defense missed far too many tackles. The schedule ahead is imposing.