Looking in the mirror

It’s amazing how the tables have turned for the USF football team. Looking at Thursday’s opener against Florida Atlantic must be a severe case of déjà vu for the Bulls.

Just four years ago, USF was the new kid on the block beginning its second year of football. And three years ago, the Bulls were the I-AA team going on the road to face a Division I-A squad to open the season.

Coach Jim Leavitt’s program has progressed nicely since those early years. In 1998, in their second year of existence, the Bulls improved to 8-3 after their inaugural campaign in 1997. And while the 1999 opener against San Diego State went badly for the Bulls (a 41-12 thumping), USF recovered to finish its final season in I-AA 7-4.

Florida Atlantic appears to be trying to follow in the Bulls’ footprints. The Owls began playing football as a I-AA Independent last season and went 4-6, including recording their first ever victory, which came against Bethune Cookman, ranked No. 22 in I-AA at the time.

Plus, the Owls have Howard Schnellenberger as their coach. Schnellenberger was responsible for turning around the University of Miami and leading the Hurricanes to their first national championship in 1983. Louisville was the next stop on Schnellenberger’s trail, and he turned the Cardinals into a force, going 10-1-1 in 1990 with a 34-7 victory against Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.

“FAU is going to come in with a tremendous team and a coach that has been there, that has won a national championship,” Leavitt said at the Florida Sportswriters Association weekend July 28. “Florida kids against Florida kids. The emotion, they understand that this is huge for us … It’s natural that everybody wants to talk about (Oklahoma and Arkansas), but FAU is going to be a very good football team. Coach Schnellenberger is a tremendous coach, and he has proven it with his track record.”

As a second-year squad, the Owls return everyone who contributed a year ago. And Leavitt knows all too well how much a team can grow from its first season to its second.

“In our first year of football, we lost to The Citadel 13-10, and in our second year of football, we’re beating The Citadel at halftime 35-0,” Leavitt said. “Everybody says that the first year to second year of a player is their greatest improvement. How about as a team? It was for us. We were 8-3, and we were ranked higher than two teams that went to the (I-AA) playoffs.”

But much like the way the Bulls struggled against the Aztecs in their first game against a Division I-A opponent, FAU is staring at an uphill battle Thursday. The Bulls are probably stronger than they’ve ever been.

Leavitt’s troops closed out the 2001 season with six straight victories, all coming at Raymond James Stadium. When the Owls enter Raymond James Thursday, they will be trying to become just the third team and first in the last 14 tries to upend USF at home. The Bulls’ 13-game winning streak at home is the fifth longest string in the nation, spanning the 2000 (6-0) and 2001 (7-0) seasons. And during that span, USF has defeated the opposition by an average margin of 40-13.

All of those numbers have the national media clamoring about the Bulls’ prospects this season.

“The Bulls shocked many by winning eight games last season and could duplicate that run,” said The Sporting News, which ranks USF No. 91 in the nation. “A full Conference USA membership awaits in 2003, so the future is bright. Look for a pile of points on both sides of the ball and long games. That’s just more time to watch (Marquel) Blackwell work his magic.”

Blackwell isn’t the only player drawing attention, although Mel Kiper picked him as the 15th best player in college football, and he’s one of 32 players in the running for the Davey O’Brien Award presented annually to the nation’s best quarterback. Middle linebacker Kawika Mitchell is once again on the watch list for the Butkus Award for the top linebacker, and defensive ends Chris Daley and Shurron Pierson are on the watch list for the Lombardi Award.

ESPN.com also recognized Pierson, naming him its Independent preseason Defensive Player of the Year. The Collegefootballnews.com tabbed Blackwell as the best offensive player in the independent ranks.

“We have most of our people back, and we do have some talent,” Leavitt said. “And we have some young guys that redshirted that I think can play. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to have a good football team, that just means you’re going to have some talent. It’s interesting. Every year every coach probably comes up here and they talk about the possibility of being pretty good, but you never really know until those players come together.

“Every year is different – how these young guys embrace each other, whether they have enough discipline and love for each other to drive ahead because the parity in this country is really something.”

Anthony Gagliano covers football and can be reached at oracleanthony@yahoo.com