It’s fitting that the USF football team will conclude its season in a city that has adopted “You have no idea” as its slogan for 2007.
After a season filled with every possible emotion, the Bulls are now headed to what coach Jim Leavitt said is “one of the most traditional bowls” in college football.
USF officially accepted an invitation Tuesday to play in the 74th annual Brut Sun Bowl, held in El Paso, Texas on New Year’s Eve.
“We’re certainly honored to represent the Big East in one of the most prestigious college bowl games of this season,” USF athletic director Doug Woolard said. “Our football program has caught the imagination of college football fans across America.”
Beginning the season as virtually unknown nationwide, USF quickly established itself as a title contender not only in the Big East Conference, but for a national title.
The Bulls started the year 6-0, riding the highs of Jessie Hester Jr.’s touchdown catch in overtime to defeat Auburn, to shutting down the duo of Pat White and Steve Slaton and beating West Virginia to climbing all the way to No. 2 in the BCS poll.
All of that seemed to be quickly erased as the Bulls dropped their next three contests by a combined 15 points, hitting a low point when Hester couldn’t repeat his feat in regulation play against Cincinnati, resulting in a fall from any ranking.
“At that point any bowl game seemed so far away,” running back Mike Ford said. “After the losses, we weren’t putting up enough points, so the offense really got it going and tacked points to the scoreboard.”
During the final three weeks of the regular season, the team earned its way back into the BCS rankings by averaging 48 points per game and defeating Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh in a convincing fashion.
USF’s turnaround landed the team at No. 21 in the BCS and the second-highest ranking in the conference.
“We want to be the first, and we will be eventually, but to be second is about as close as you can be to being the top team,” Leavitt said. “They battled, persevered and went through three of the most gut wrenching losses I’ve ever been involved with. Our guys could have quit and backed off, but they didn’t.”
Awaiting the Bulls is an opponent from the Pacific-10 Conference, the only BCS conference they have yet to play, as they make their national-network television debut on CBS with kickoff scheduled for 2 p.m.
Unlike the Big East, where the Sun Bowl can select its participant, the Pac-10 candidate is required to be the third-place team, unless it played in the game the year before.
Oregon State defeated Missouri 39-38 in the Sun Bowl last season, so it could be passed over for a fourth-place team.
The Pac-10’s regular season concludes this weekend and the announcement of the Bulls’ opponent will be made next week.
No. 17 Oregon would be USF’s opponent but the Ducks must defeat Oregon State to retain their position.
What makes the selection complicated is that two teams from the Pac-10 could be chosen for a BCS bowl (Orange, Rose, Fiesta, Sugar or National Championship), and if two teams go, the fourth-place team will face the Bulls.
“I’m going to watch and see who’s going to win and try and scout some of them before we know who we’re playing,” defensive end George Selvie said. “It’s a good conference and there are a lot of good teams there, so I’ll definitely be watching them. A lot of those teams were (ranked as high as USF) and they’re still making strides.”
Perhaps the most appreciative player heading to the Sun Bowl is Ford, as his college career was derailed for two seasons.
Ford originally signed with Alabama in 2005 after one of the most prolific high school careers in Florida. At Sarasota High School, he was tabbed a five-star recruit after rushing for 2,836 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Unable to play for the Crimson Tide because of academics, he attended Hargrave Military Academy for two years before transferring to join his cousin, wide receiver Amarri Jackson, on the Bulls.
In July, Ford’s father died suddenly and the 20-year-old dedicated the season to him.
On the field, the 6-foot-2-inch, 225-pound back emerged as USF’s primary goal line threat and one of the team’s most exciting playmakers.
“That’s not really normal, to play that much as a true freshman,” Ford said. “It feels good to help out the team to get to the bowl.”
He led the Bulls with 12 rushing touchdowns and finished second on the team in rushing with 637 yards, despite seeing limited carries early in the season and sitting out one game.
As the Bulls finished the year with three straight wins, Ford received a bulk of the carries and didn’t disappoint, rushing for 337 yards and six touchdowns.
After the long road to playing college football and dealing with adversity to begin the season, Ford added about what it feels like going to the Sun Bowl: “You have no idea.”