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Bulls prepare for I-A challenge

After a transition season and in just their fifth year of play, the Bulls have reached Division I-A, the highest level of college football.

Playing at this level heightens excitement and at the same time creates new challenges for the Bulls. They will face tougher opponents with games having a more national importance.

Coach Jim Leavitt said with the new challenges come increased exposure.

?There has been more media attention,? he said. ?Everything is elevated.?

Even with being in the spotlight, the Bulls are picked by many to struggle this season. In Sports Illustrated?s preseason rankings, the Bulls are listed as No. 116 out of 117 teams in Division I-A, with the last place team being Connecticut, the Bulls? opponent on Oct. 13.

Leavitt said at this point, his concern is preparing his team to play, not on future opponents.

?I haven?t thought about I-A,? he said. ?My whole mind and my whole soul are on how we can get this team to improve.?

The Bulls will be tested early this season, opening with two games on the road against I-A opponents. The second of these games is against Pittsburgh, a team with bowl game hopes picked to be 28th by Sports Illustrated.

?We?re all pretty anxious for getting going,? said quarterback Marquel Blackwell. ?It?s exciting and the stakes are higher. We?ve got a lot more to play for.?

Like Leavitt, Blackwell said the team is trying to prepare without being too concerned about opponents.

?You can?t really worry about who you play,? he said.

Wide receiver DeAndrew Rubin said he believes the differences between I-A and I-AA, the Bulls? previous classification, are subtle.

?It?s all about depth between I-A and I-AA,? he said. ?There is no difference between the first teams.?

The Bulls enter this first season in Division I-A not affiliated with any conference. In 2003, they will join Conference USA, the conference in which other USF sports teams already play. This future move into the conference is reflected in the schedule. The Bulls will face future C-USA foes Memphis and Houston this season.

Standout linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who was named to the preseason first-team All-Independent and named the No. 13 best independent player in the country, said he is excited to see the program growing to its new level.

?It means our program is getting better, good enough to play against people like that,? he said. ?I?m really excited.?

Mitchell also said the team has grown close in preparing for the upcoming season.

?This is a family. We believe in each other,? he said.

More excitement arose when the Bulls announced a plan is being drafted to play defending national champions Oklahoma at Norman, Okla., in 2002. This will pit Leavitt against Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. The two worked together as assistants at Kansas State from 1990-95. Also, USF Athletics Director Lee Roy Selmon played for Oklahoma in the early 1970s before being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Selmon said he is hopeful that a game between the Bulls and the University of Florida can be scheduled for an upcoming season. Reports indicate this matchup could take place before 2007.

Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz said he is ready for the Bulls to be seen on a bigger stage.

?We want to show we can play. I love that attitude,? he said. ?We want the whole nation to watch us.?

Kicker Santiago Gramatica said the goal remains to win games.

?We?ve got to go one game at a time,? he said. ?We?re I-A because we can win I-A games.?

Three of the Bulls? 11 opponents this year maintain Division I-AA status. These 11 opponents combined for a .301 winning percentage last season, going 53-123. The Bulls will face two teams which they played last year, Liberty and Connecticut. USF won both of those games. The Bulls will also be seen six times on television this season. Leavitt said the plan is to concentrate on the basics of winning games.

?It is real important to realize from Day 1 we talked about winning,? he said.

Rob Brannon covers football and can be reached at