Turns out this revolution will be televised -- 8 ET Friday night. Sold out. NFL town. NFL stadium. National television.
|Jim Leavitt's Bulls have taken huge strides in the past few years. (US Presswire)|
Not unlike Miami and the Orange Bowl 23 years ago. Or Florida State three years later. Except this time we've been notified.
Back then nobody knew that Miami was about to establish a dynasty by beating Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Or that in 1987 Florida State would embark on a 14-year journey during which it would finish no lower than fourth in the AP poll. Meanwhile, not exactly in the background, Steve Spurrier was about to change the SEC -- and the nation.
This time we know the time, place and identity of the school that is about to make Florida's Big Three the Big Four. South Florida -- the Bulls in those garish green and gold uniforms -- could ascend to I-A relevance by beating No. 5 West Virginia on Friday.
Even if they lose, they will have made their point -- there can, there soon will be another major college power in the state of Florida. With seven I-A programs in the state playing in five different conferences, time, as Howard Schnellenberger used to say, is the only variable.
"Don't categorize us with those (other) schools," South Florida coach Jim Leavitt told the Kansas City Star last week. "There are four BCS schools in the state of Florida: Florida, South Florida, Florida State and Miami. Nobody else in that room."
|Key Dates in South Florida history||Early proposed names for USF (located in Tampa), were Citrus State University and Sunshine State University. Current NFL players include LB Kawika Mitchell, CB Anthony Henry and OG Frank Davis.|
|Dec. 3, 1995: Jim Leavitt named first coach in school history.|
|Sept. 6, 1997: South Florida defeated Kentucky Wesleyan 80-3 in the school's inaugural game.|
|Oct. 28, 2000: Defeated its first I-A opponent, beating Connecticut 21-13.|
|2001: Moved from I-AA to I-A, finishing 8-3 in inaugural season as a I-A independent.|
|Nov. 16, 2002: Earned first win over a nationally ranked I-A team, beating Bowling Green 29-7.|
|2003: Joined Conference USA, going 7-4, beating future Big East opponents Louisville 31-28 and Cincinnati 24-17.|
|Nov. 4, 2003: USF accepts invitation to join Big East beginning in 2005.|
|2005: Joined the Big East, going 6-6, including a 45-14 victory over then No. 9 Louisville. The Bulls also earned a bid to its first bowl game, the Meineke Car Care Bowl where it lost 14-0 to N.C. State.|
|Nov. 25, 2006: Defeated its highest-ranked opponent, knocking off No. 7 West Virginia 24-19, snapping the Mountaineers eight-game home winning streak.|
|2006: USF finished 9-4, defeated East Carolina 24-7 in the Papajohns.com Bowl. The Bulls also were ranked 29th in the final AP poll with 17 points.|
|Sept. 8, 2007: Defeated its fourth ranked opponent in school history, shocking No. 17 Auburn 26-23 in overtime.|
That's the boldest statement from the usually reserved Leavitt in his decade-plus as creator, nurturer and coach of South Florida football. Maybe that's the point -- it has happened. At this moment, it can be argued intelligently, South Florida is at least on par with Miami and Florida State.
We just have to punch the remote to see it ourselves.
Swagger. It's not just a 'U thang' anymore. South Florida (USF) and Central Florida (UCF) have even demanded that media use initials usually reserved for traditional programs with multiple championships that are etched into the public consciousness.
Hey, anything that works.
"I thought we were already in the (state's) Big Three," Bulls receiver Taurus Johnson said. "I (didn't) know Miami was still there."
The coaches poll this week is buying in. It is believed that for only the second time, Central Florida, South Florida, Florida, Florida State and Miami all received votes.
"There's room for two more (powers in the state), and you could argue even more," said Steve Orsini, former Central Florida AD.
It's all a bit of luck and serendipity. Orsini hired George O'Leary who was available because of the Notre Dame scandal. The former Georgia Tech coach fell into a wonderland -- hey, the school is near Disneyworld. Weather, enrollment (48,000 students) and an open checkbook.
Texas was foolish enough to agree to open Bright House Networks Stadium and almost got beat. North Carolina State did get punked by the Knights, at home in the season opener.
Schnellenberger has come full circle in the winter of his years. His mere presence at Florida Atlantic provided the momentum for a new on-campus stadium by 2010.
South Florida? Just luckier than most. It was sitting there at the right time when the ACC raided the Big East. That moved USF to the head of the line two years ago, able to play in a BCS league. What followed was growing interest, consecutive bowl appearances, and a full stadium Friday night.
And recruits. Definitely recruits. More on that later.
Eleven years after the coaching staff lit the practice field at night with their headlights, South Florida is in the best position to make the best statement. In the past three seasons Leavitt's team has beaten Louisville, West Virginia and, earlier this month, Auburn in a program-defining win at an SEC venue.
"You don't win games because you're ranked," defensive end George Selvie said of the No. 18 Bulls. "You're ranked because you win games."
Also 11 years ago, a color-blind Leavitt was picking out the program's colors, asking himself: Was the drain for the washer big enough? Coaches worked out of trailers. Leavitt, a former Missouri defensive back, led the program through those early anonymous days to I-AA status to a nine-win season last year to this: A sold-out Raymond James Stadium.
|Key Dates in UCF history||UCF, which used to be known as Florida Technological University, is located in Orlando. Current NFL players include QB Daunte Culpepper, CB Asante Samuel and WR Brandon Marshall.|
|Sept. 22, 1979: Central Florida defeated St. Leo 21-0 in the school's inaugural game.|
|1982: UCF moves from Division III to Division II going 0-10 in its first season.|
|Nov. 2, 1985: Played its first I-A opponent, losing 42-21 to Louisville.|
|1987: Earned its first Division II postseason bid, beating Indiana (Pa.) in the first round before losing to Troy State 31-10 in the second round.|
|1990: Moved from Division II to I-AA, going 10-4, becoming the first school in history to qualify for the I-AA playoffs in its first season of eligibility.|
|Aug. 31, 1995: Playing in his first college game, Daunte Culpepper throws for 254 yards and three touchdowns in the 40-32 victory over Eastern Kentucky.|
|Sept. 1, 1996: Moved from I-AA to I-A. UCF became the first college program to play in four different classes.|
|2002: UCF moved from a I-A Independent to the Mid-American Conference.|
|Dec. 2004: George O'Leary named head coach.|
|2005: Joined Conference USA, going 8-5, including 7-1 in conference play. The Knights also played in the C-USA Championship game and earned a bid to the Hawaii Bowl, where it lost 49-48 in overtime to Nevada.|
|Sept. 15, 2007: Opened Bright House Networks Stadium with a dramatic 35-32 loss to Texas.|
"This is still so new," Leavitt said. "We haven't been in a conference longer than two years. Some teams are in a conference 80 years, 90 years, 100 years. Do conferences exist that long?"
They do, which makes his team's ascension so surprising.
• Eleven years into its football existence, Florida went 0-5 under A.L. Busser in 1916.
• Miami's Irl Tubbs was able to win consecutive games at Bucknell and Rollins in 1936.
• In 1957, Florida State's 11th season, the 'Noles were a year removed from their first bowl -- the Bluegrass Bowl.
Times change. Decades have turned into a decade. Florida Atlantic just beat Minnesota, nine years after starting the program from scratch. Central Florida, which jumped to I-A in 1996, played in the Conference USA championship game in O'Leary's second season.
The blueprint is the same, said Orsini, who hired O'Leary four years ago. Get the right coach and everything takes off. Florida State was in its first Orange Bowl within five years of hiring Bowden. Florida had never won an SEC title until Spurrier arrived. Miami almost cut football in the 1970s. On Halloween Night 1981, Schnellenberger beat No. 1 Penn State, foreshadowing future greatness.
"If you really look at the history of universities in Florida, they all followed this similar path," said Orsini, now at SMU. "FSU before Bobby Bowden was a women's university. Look at Miami. Coach Schnellenberger was able to get over the hump. His strategy was to build a fence around South Florida. I don't know when that well will get tapped out."
That well is filled with meat on the hoof -- estimates of 300 or more I-A prospects in the state per season.
If that's the case, then why are there no 2007 national top 100 players on the rosters of South Florida, Central Florida, Florida Atlantic and Florida International? Those schools essentially have never beaten the Big Three for a player that the powerhouses really wanted. They've taken cast-offs, transfers and second-tier guys that might have gotten a courtesy call, but have never won a head-to-head battle for a five-star guy.
Bobby Bowden explained why that's true and why the newbies are prospering because of it.
"We have to determine how many kids we can recruit at each position," he said. "Let's say we go after two wide receivers. That's all the scholarships we have. Well, there's 20 of them in the state that can play. You pick two out that are not as good as some that are going to develop later. One of them is going to grow three inches and put on 25 pounds. All of the sudden he's a I-A football player."
In a way Bowden is indicting his own program. If there are so many players in the state, why are Florida State and Miami down? They're getting four- and five-star players, but maybe not the right blue chippers.
Uneven Miami quarterback Kyle Wright was in the same recruiting class at USC's John David Booty and Florida's Chris Leak. In 2002, 10 of Florida State's 22 recruits never made it to their senior year. However, seven of those were drafted.
|Howard Schnellenberger has caused excitement over at FAU. (US Presswire)|
Somewhere in that mix is Selvie, a self-described Division II prospect (at center) who was determined to get a I-A scholarship. This week the South Florida defensive end is the toast of Tampa, leading the nation in sacks and tackles for loss.
"You've got to be real good evaluators," said Bulls defensive line coach Dan McCarney. "George is tall, he's athletic, he's tough and he's got character but he's from a smaller place in Pensacola."
While the Bulls are sniffing out Steve Slaton and Patrick White, the Mountaineers had better spy the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Selvie, who reminds some of the school's former AD -- Lee Roy Selmon, better known as a Hall of Fame defensive terror.
In Orlando, Kevin Smith somehow got away, too. At least Smith was a big-time tailback prospect until a new coach at Miami Southridge High School moved him to safety for his senior year. Smith dropped off the recruiting radar until O'Leary remembered him.
"I told our assistants, 'Go back and recruit him,' O'Leary said."We were the only ones that were recruiting him."
Now Smith is the nation's No. 3 rusher, a human piece of momentum that, in Orlando, includes a new stadium and a near upset of Texas a couple of weeks ago.
"You know what happens?" Florida International coach Mario Cristobal asked. "Kids start seeing which schools already have enough depth. They're starting to realize, 'Hey, I could be the first guy here. I could be the guy that does it here instead of waiting a couple of years and maybe transferring (from a larger program).'"
That's both a free advertisement for his program and an invitation to watch the revolution.