No playoffs. No bowl game. What is South Florida's motivation? To use every game as yet another step toward future success.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000
USF game by game
TAMPA -- There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
No reward for a job well done.
When the University of South Florida opens the 2000 football season Sept. 2, it will do so with the knowledge that its season will extend no further than the 11 regular-season games slated through Nov. 18.
The post-season is not an option.
Although it is in a transition year between Division I-AA and I-A, South Florida has chosen to add the maximum number of scholarships allowed for Division I schools, 85, rendering the Bulls ineligible for the I-AA playoffs this season. With no chance of a playoff or bowl game, it might be easy to ask: What's the point? What is there to play for?
The Bulls will tell you plenty. Pride, the thrill of competition and the future of USF football, to name a few.
"Basically we are playing for this program's future," senior safety Jay Mize said. "We want to put this program on the map. That's our whole goal. We've come from step one, now we want to put it on the Division I-A map. Division I-AA was fine, but now we're trying to make this program known nationwide."
The Bulls will play five Division I teams this season. The SEC's Kentucky is one of them. Baylor, out of the Big 12, is another. Conference USA powerhouse Southern Mississippi also is on the schedule.
In a season where the post-season isn't an option, every game takes on greater importance.
"We want to go out there, have fun, win games and let this season dictate our program's future," senior wide receiver Charlie Jackson said. "The coaches reiterate to us that just because we're not playing for anything doesn't mean we can't go out there and have fun and beat up on some of these teams that really think we're a joke." Playing Division I opponents will be the equivalent of bowl games, senior defensive back Anthony Henry said.
"Playing those I-A teams -- that's our motivation," Henry said. "Those are our bowl games. Those are guys that will be in big bowl games this year, so that will be our challenge."
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
I would much rather play a Kentucky, Baylor or Southern Miss than even play in a I-AA
playoff because its just so much more
powerful, so much bigger and the stakes are so much higher, says coach Jim Leavitt.
Several factors will decide whether the Bulls can meet the challenge.
There are questions at running back, where Otis Dixon returns from a torn anterior-cruciate ligament sustained early last season, and Rafael Williams hopes to return to the form that made him the all-time leading rusher before tendinitis hampered him.
The offensive line was decimated by injuries last season, and two players with no college experience are battling for starting jobs.
South Florida also will start a young, but experienced quarterback, Marquel Blackwell, a sophomore who took over the starting job after coming off the bench twice during his freshman season.
"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people," Williams said. "They are going to take us lightly. We're in I-A transition and they think we're a bunch of young guys. These guys on this team don't like to lose. We work too hard to come up short on Saturday night. I think we're going to do well this season."
Whatever the season holds, coach Jim Leavitt said the decision to forgo the I-AA playoffs and concentrate on the program's future is the correct one.
"I would much rather play a Kentucky, Baylor or Southern Miss than even play in a I-AA playoff because it's just so much more powerful, so much bigger and the stakes are so much higher," Leavitt said. "You can win a I-AA national championship, but what you did by beating a Kentucky is a lot more than winning a I-AA national championship. Everybody sees Georgia Southern winning a national championship, but they don't think Georgia Southern has a prayer against a Kentucky, Baylor or Southern Miss. So if we go in there and make a run at some of these teams, then we have nothing to lose.
"I know we've got the best team we've ever had here. I know that. Is it going to be good enough to look good during this season? I don't know. It depends on how our guys come together. I know we have talent. I know we have guys that can play with anybody we play. It depends so much on how this group comes together as far as cohesiveness and confidence. It's something that's hard to explain."
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