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Critics can say it: 'We told you so'
By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published November 4, 2007
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TAMPA - By nightfall, it was as if the miracle never happened.
The college football world had moved on, and South Florida was forgotten once more.
No one was left to talk about how a prepubescent program could be in line for the national championship, or how a trophy-sized quarterback might be mentioned for the Heisman.
By nightfall, the Bulls had lost a third consecutive game and, perhaps more important, their last chance to prove they were not some fluke of fortunate circumstances and flawed polls.
No one dared suggest a Big East Conference championship was still on the table or a New Year's bowl game was still a likely destination.
By nightfall, it was easy to say USF was overrated at No. 2.
"Probably so. If I was a Joe Blow fan out there and a team shows up 6-0 and then starts losing, that's going to be your natural reaction," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "There were some coaches around the nation who said we couldn't maintain it. And right now, they're right."
Go back to the morning of Oct. 18. The Bulls were preparing to play a nationally televised game on a Thursday night, and the world was rushing to find out more about this obscure team with its kooky coach. South Florida was fast becoming the most improbable story in a season of unimaginable upheaval.
USF was nearly halfway to the BCS championship game and reserving space for the bandwagon. Fans were mocking the rest of the state and imagining a new hierarchy.
Seventeen days later, it's all gone.
There will be no national championship. There will be no conference title. By this afternoon, there won't even be a Top 25 ranking. No team has ever been as high as No. 2 in the first BCS poll of the season and finished out of the top 15.
There's your new legacy, South Florida.
Whenever an upstart threatens to crash a party, the world will invoke the name of USF as a reminder of how hard it is for an unknown to go the distance.
"I couldn't blame them. People don't like change, and us being up there surprised everyone," said junior linebacker Brouce Mompremier. "I can't get mad over someone saying we don't belong."
Around here, they will know the truth is more complex.
They will know South Florida had the ball in Rutgers territory trailing 30-27 in the final minute on Oct. 18. They will know South Florida was 1 yard from a game-tying touchdown against Connecticut in the final minute on Oct. 27. And they will know South Florida had two passes fall in the end zone trailing Cincinnati 38-33 in the final minute on Saturday.
Three games, three shots at victory, three losses.
"I don't know if I've had a team in 11 years that has gone through three losses like these three in a row, where we had a chance at winning them all," coach Jim Leavitt said. "You could realistically look at us - and I know it sounds crazy - but you could look at us being 9-0. It's that close."
Leavitt has every right to believe the Bulls are a few lucky breaks from 9-0.
Just as you have every right to suggest the Bulls are a few lucky breaks from 4-5.
Or don't you remember the last-minute comeback and overtime victory against Auburn? Or the frantic West Virginia rally that ended a completion or two short?
The point is, on the balance, a team gets what it deserves. So maybe USF has a right to cry foul since it appeared Jessie Hester Jr. may have been a victim of pass interference in the end zone on the game's final play.
But it's hard to point a finger at referees when you've committed eight turnovers, had a punt blocked, allowed a portly punter to run 12 yards for a first down and given up a 76-yard flea flicker pass.
In the end, the game was simply a reminder that USF has much ground to make up. In talent, in history and in prestige. It was evident on the field by the amount of mistakes, and it was evident in the bleachers by the vast number of people who departed long before the night's thrilling conclusion.
If you look at it from a big-picture sense, USF is still a remarkable story. It has two dramatic victories against Top 20 teams and is seemingly headed to a third straight bowl game.
It's just hard to look at it so optimistically today. Not when you consider where they were and where they could have gone.
The Bulls came from nowhere to near the top of the world in just 11 seasons.