Casual football fans started getting to know South Florida — or, as the program insists on being called, USF — in 2005, when it became a member of the revamped Big East Conference.
The Bulls beat Louisville in 2005. A year ago, they topped West Virginia and narrowly defeated Rutgers, suggesting that the Big East’s power threesome was actually closer to a quartet.
And last weekend, South Flo, er, USF went into Auburn, undaunted by the suffocating atmosphere of Jordan-Hare Stadium or the SEC’s status as biggest, bestest conference in the history of the universe. The Bulls stunned No. 17 Auburn, 26-23, in overtime.
“If you go into any game thinking it’s going to be an upset, then you are fighting an uphill battle,” Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said. “If you look at each schedule from the beginning, I always felt we always bit off a big chunk.”
Casual fan, meet USF. And, in the coming years, be prepared to meet more success story schools like it.
The age of year-round football training creating the biggest talent pool ever, combined with scholarship restrictions, has made the gap between the haves and have-nots smaller than ever before.
Long gone are the days when a Woody Hayes could sign a player just to keep Bear Bryant from getting him. Now, that player is not buried on the Ohio State depth chart, he is playing — and winning — in someone else’s jersey.
“It’s numbers more than anything,” Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. “It used to be 95 scholarships and now it’s down to 85, and there are more players out there. The talent is spread around more, no question about it.”
As a result, the power programs are more vulnerable than ever, especially early in the year. Exhibit A is, of course, the mother of all shockers, little Appalachian State’s victory at fifth-ranked Michigan two weeks ago.
That same day, Arkansas State gave Texas a major scare. Last week, Middle Tennessee pushed Louisville into the fourth quarter, and Nevada-Las Vegas had Wisconsin sweating until the final gun.
The less-concentrated talent pool has made the challenge of starting or rejuvenating a program somewhat easier. Two of USF’s Big East foes are a prime example, as Connecticut won nine games in its fourth season as a Division I-A school, and Rutgers rose from the dead in part because the good high school talent in New Jersey started staying home.
But a case could be made the biggest potential lies with USF, which is located in Tampa and boasts an enrollment of about 45,000. The Bulls play home games in Raymond James Stadium, sharing the facility with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
USF is one of the major-college programs that have recently sprung up in Florida — after years with just Florida, Florida State and Miami, the Sunshine State has seven NCAA bowl subdivision teams.
“The state can start I-A programs and be successful, just by recruiting the kids in their backyard,” Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said.
USF began in 1996 with 75 players, played its first varsity game the next year and moved to I-A in 2001, winning eight games, then nine in ’02. After two seasons in Conference USA, the Bulls joined the Big East in 2005.
This year, USF — which is idle today and hosts North Carolina next week — has 15 returning starters, including sophomore Matt Grothe, the best unknown quarterback in America, and freshman running back Matt Ford, a highly touted recruit from Sarasota, Fla., who originally committed to Alabama. Cornerback Trae Williams and linebacker Ben Moffitt lead the defense.
And with a coach who has proven the ability to take what he has and build on it, the Bulls’ recent success figures to breed even more — perhaps to the point that a USF win against a big, bad SEC school will not be considered an upset.
“(Leavitt) has a chance to do something that I don’t think has ever been done in history,” USF athletic director Doug Woolard said. “And that’s start a program, stay with it and take it to a place of national prominence.”
This report includes information from other media sources.
Last week was a bad one to be a potential Bowl Championship Series crasher, as non-BCS conference hopefuls Texas Christian (vs. Texas), Boise State (vs. Washington) and Brigham Young (vs. UCLA) lost. Hawaii was taken to the limit by lowly Louisiana Tech before prevailing 45-44 in overtime.
“These guys have so much character,” Hawaii coach June Jones said. “I wouldn’t want to win it any other way.”
Uh, no, coach, if you want to impress enough poll voters to finish in the top 12 of the BCS standings and earn an at-large berth. The Warriors stayed put in the USA Today (coaches) rankings at No. 22 and dropped four spots in The Associated Press poll (which is not factored into the BCS standings) to 24th.
Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford put up numbers at a video-game pace in the first two weeks of the season, throwing for 568 yards. His eight touchdown tosses put him on pace to obliterate the NCAA freshman record of 29, set by Colt McCoy of Texas last season.
Not surprisingly, the Sooner hype schooner is speeding at a runaway pace, comparing the baby-faced Bradford — who at one point completed 22 consecutive passes, two shy of the NCAA record — to 2003 Heisman Trophy winner Jason White and 2000 runner-up Josh Heupel. Coach Bob Stoops wants none of that, however.
“I’m not going to sit here and compare him to those two guys,” Stoops said. “It’s way too early. I’m not going there.”
• Darren McFadden: After today’s game against Alabama, the next three defenses the Arkansas running back will face are those of Kentucky, North Texas and Tennessee-Chattanooga. That is a statistic-padding paradise.
• Graham Harrell: After two games, the Texas Tech quarterback has 903 yards and eight touchdowns passing. If Colt Brennan and Brian Brohm’s lofty numbers are in the Heisman discussion, why not Harrell’s?
• Marlon Lucky: The Nebraska running back has saved his team’s bacon as QB Sam Keller has performed no better than OK. He needs a big game today against Southern California to boost his stock.
• Steve Slaton: There are very few players who are a touchdown threat on each play. The West Virginia running back, who ran for 137 yards and three scores against Maryland on Thursday, is one of them.
• Tim Tebow: Second in the country in passing and ninth in total offense, the Florida quarterback — finally at the controls of the offense full-time — is living up to the hype.
Three and out
• A reminder: The Heisman Watch on this page is not a list of the current top five players. The feature designates the favorite at the moment (McFadden) and four other guys generating recent Heisman buzz, which is why such certain candidates as John David Booty and Ray Rice are not mentioned every week.
• Oregon did what a good team should do against a wounded Michigan squad last week — win overwhelmingly. The Ducks must follow up on that performance and avoid the late-season slide that occurred in 2004 and last season.
• There is a brewing notion that, because they do not factor into the Bowl Championship Series standings, The Associated Press rankings are “irrelevant.” Ahem, the No. 1 team in the final AP poll remains recognized as a national champion, and has been since 1936. The rankings are most certainly relevant.
Next week, early-season surprise Washington gets a big test at UCLA, and South Carolina goes in search of an upset at Louisiana State.