Former national champs highlight 2002 schedule

The theme of the USF 2002 schedule is taking another step up.

Following last year’s 8-3 mark in their inaugural Division I-A season, the Bulls decided to up the ante this year. Gone are I-AA foes like Western Illinois, Liberty and Southern Utah, and in their place, the Bulls added teams like 2001 National champion Oklahoma, and the Sooners’ opponent in the 2002 Cotton Bowl, Arkansas.

“You always have to have a cause,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said.

“Last year, it was our first year as a I-A Independent. This year, we have games against five schools from major conferences. That’s never going to happen again. Plus we’re bowl eligible. We’d have to have a tremendous record, but those are some pretty good incentives.”

The opportunity and the difficulty are two of the incentives of playing this caliber competition that have been on the lips of all the players since the schedule was announced.

“Last year, people kind of doubted us a lot,” junior Shurron Pierson said. “They kind of thought we weren’t going to do as well as we did last year with the schedule we had. This year, we stepped it up another notch. We have to step up to that and come through. Prove people wrong again because with the schedule we have now, people really don’t expect us to win anything. We’re out to prove to the nation that we can play.”

Future Conference USA foes like Southern Mississippi, Houston, Memphis and East Carolina also dot the schedule. USF remains an independent in 2002, but the Bulls will become full-fledged C-USA members in the fall of 2003. Until the Bulls can challenge the Golden Eagles, Cougars, Tigers and Pirates for a conference title, the Bulls will have to be content with earning respect from those teams before joining the C-USA mix.

Florida Atlantic Aug. 29

Leavitt is concerned about the Owls, and perhaps there’s a good reason why. The Owls bear an uncanny resemblance to USF from a few years ago. FAU is entering its second season in football and will play as a I-AA Independent. The Owls went 4-6 a year ago, including defeating No. 22 Bethune Cookman. In USF’s inaugural season, the Bulls went 5-6 as a I-AA Independent, then improved to 8-3 in 1998. Leavitt said that a program makes its biggest strides from the first year to the second.

FAU is also coached by the legendary Howard Schnellenberger, who resurrected Miami and delivered the Hurricanes first of four National championships.

With only one senior and just a handful of juniors, the Owls rely heavily on the freshmen that made an impact a year ago, like quarterback Jared Allen and running back Doug Parker. Another year together should help Schnellenberger’s team continue to gel, but the Bulls know all too well what happens when a I-AA team takes on a I-A squad. The Bulls lost to San Diego State 41-12 in their first matchup against a I-A opponent.

Northern Illinois Sept. 7

Revenge is a dish best served cold, but Raymond James will be hot when the Huskies come to town. The Bulls squandered a 17-7 third quarter lead against NIU last year in the season opener and could only watch as Azar’s field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired to give the Huskies a 20-17 victory.

Running back Thomas Hammock shredded the Bulls defense for 177 yards last season, and he returns for the Huskies. Top receiver P.J. Fleck is back as well, but NIU will be breaking in a new quarterback.

USF got two big-play touchdowns passes from Marquel Blackwell to DeAndrew Rubin, but that was about it. However, the Bulls have now had a whole year to adapt to the spread offense and are much more comfortable. Northern Illinois returns nine starters on defense and held USF to 274 yards of offense, the second lowest total in 2001 for USF. Plus, a few national publications have NIU ranked higher.

@Arkansas Sept.. 14

The Razorbacks put on a defensive display in the Cotton Bowl, as they held Oklahoma to 10 points, but lost the game 10-3. Most of Arkansas’ talent lies in the secondary where safety Ken Hamlin, who forced 10 turnovers last year, and corner Lawrence Richardson are both up for All-SEC honors. The rest of the defense is steady if unspectacular.

On offense, Matt Jones established himself as the Hogs’ quarterback by carrying the team to a memorable 58-56 win against Mississippi in the longest game in college football (seven overtimes). The Razorbacks lack a go-to wide out, but the team has three or four capable players. Running backs Fred Talley and Cedric Cobbs are both outstanding talents and right tackle Shawn Andrews is just a mountain (6-foot-6, 330 pounds). The sophomore is already being considered for All-SEC and should provide Chris Daley with a great test.

Arkansas does have to replace the entire left side of its line as well as its center for a team that scored two touchdowns or less five times a year ago.

@Oklahoma Sept. 28

USF will not only get its first shot at a top-10 opponent, but the Bulls could be playing the No. 1 team in the nation. The Sooners are ranked No. 1 by Sports Illustrated, No. 2 in the Associated Press’ preseason poll and top five by almost everyone else. The game is rife with story lines: Leavitt vs. his former fellow defensive coordinator at Kansas State Bob Stoops, Lee Roy Selmon returning to the site of some of his greatest moments and the biggest game in USF history by far.

Oklahoma has some work do to. It must replace the Butkus Award winner Rocky Calmus and Thorpe recipient Roy Williams, the sixth pick overall in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Not that the cupboard is bare, mind you. The secondary still possesses three all-conference caliber players in corners Derrick Strait and Andre Woolfolk and safety Brandon Everage. Sophomore defensive tackle Tommie Harris started from Day 1 last year, and should be an All-American in the very near future.

On offense, it could be like looking in a mirror for the Bulls. The Sooners will show lots of four-wide sets and use shifty halfback Quentin Griffin to change it up. Quarterback Nate Hybl started last year, but when he went down with an injury, Jason White stepped in and brought athleticism to the spot. Whoever starts will have one of the best collection of receivers in the game at their disposal.

@North Texas Oct. 5

Following those two rough contests, USF will again go on the road to play the Mean Green. North Texas came to Raymond James a year ago, and the Bulls used two scores from Clenton Crossley and a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Maurice Jones on a fourth-and-one, cementing the game for USF, 28-10.

However, it was the 5-6 Mean Green and not the 8-3 Bulls that went to a bowl game last year. As the first-ever Sun Belt champions, North Texas earned a berth in the New Orleans Bowl, despite a losing record. Quarterback Scott Hall and 1,000-yard rusher Kevin Galbreath return, as do eight other starters on offense.

The defense was the best in the Sun Belt a year ago, but it does miss the conference’s best defensive player in 2001, linebacker Brad Kassell. Craig Jones, Jonas Buckles and Don McGee are all being touted as all-conference in the secondary, and 325-pound defensive tackle Brandon Kennedy will be a nightmare matchup for most.

Southern Miss Oct. 12

The Bulls and Golden Eagles met in 2000, and Southern Miss handed USF a 44-6 thrashing. Jeff Bower consistently puts out good teams at Southern Miss, but last year’s mediocre 6-5 mark kept the Eagles from bowling for the first time in five years. But the team needs to replace only five starters, and one of the replacements is running back Derrick Nix, who put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons before a kidney ailment sidelined him for most of 2000 and 2001. Another question mark comes at quarterback, where three-year starter Jeff Kelly has finally departed.

The rest of the team is solid with numerous all-conference candidates, including guard Torrin Tucker and middle linebacker Rod Davis, who are among the 10 best in the college game at their positions.

@East Carolina Oct. 19

The Pirates have been among C-USA’s best for the last three years, going to a bowl game each season. In 2001, ECU went 6-5, but in the GMAC Bowl, the Pirates lost to Marshall 64-61 in double overtime in the highest scoring bowl game in history.

However, the key components to that attack have used up their eligibility.

Quarterback David Garrard, who passed for more than 10,000 yards in his career, became a fourth-round pick of Jacksonville. Garrard passed for at least 2,000 yards all four seasons and became the Pirates record holder for passing yards, completions and touchdowns. ECU will also be without Leonard Henry, who posted 1,432 yards rushing last season to set a C-USA mark. The Pirates will also be without another record setter, linebacker Pernell Griffin, who holds the most tackles in C-USA’s history.

Charleston Southern Nov. 2

How strange will it be for the Buccaneers to be the visitors at Raymond James? This is USF’s second game vs. a I-AA opponent. USF is 2-0 against the Buccaneers, having defeated them 24-6 in 1997 and 24-0 in ’98. Charleston Southern, a member of the Big South, was 5-6 last season and returns 10 starters on offense, but lost quarterback Jake Sills, who passed for 2,300 yards and 12 scores in 2001.

Memphis Nov. 9

Much like the Northern Illinois game, the Bulls are adamant they should have beat Memphis a year ago. The offense sputtered as defensive end Shurron Pierson scored USF’s lone touchdown on a 15-yard fumble return. USF had a chance with time winding down, but Marquel Blackwell’s pass to Huey Whittaker dropped incomplete and the Tigers held onto a 17-9 victory.

Memphis was 5-6 in 2001, but the pieces seem to be coming together for Tommy West and the Tigers. Defensive tackle Albert Means, a transfer from Alabama, is a former Parade All-American in high school and showed why last season, his first with the Tigers. West also found his quarterback late in the year as redshirt freshman Danny Wimprine fired nine touchdown passes in Memphis’ final three games.

Tailback Dante Brown also had a superb 2001, gaining 902 yards on the ground and scoring 11 touchdowns.

Tony Brown recorded seven sacks from his spot at end, but the secondary is a concern.

Bowling Green Nov. 16

The Falcons were an abysmal 2-9 in 2000, but first-year coach Urban Meyer turned the team around last year. Bowling Green improved to 8-3 in 2001 and is the preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference’s West division. That feat earned Meyer the MAC’s Coach of the Year as the Falcons beat Missouri and Northwestern.

Bowling Green has a pair of all-conference players in receiver Robert Redd, who caught 72 balls for 884 yards and nine touchdowns, and cornerback Janssen Patton, who picked off four passes. Meyer also boasts two experienced quarterbacks in junior Josh Harris and senior Andy Sahm.

The defense is a worry with only four returning starters. The line is in disarray, but there’s unproven talent at linebacker.

@Houston Nov. 23

USF made C-USA take notice by drubbing the Cougars 45-6 in 2001, but then again, it wasn’t as if Houston was really beating up on anyone. In fact, the Cougars didn’t beat anyone. Houston went 0-11 last year, losing by one to Cincinnati, but the Cougars were only within two touchdowns in one other game.

Running back Joffrey Reynolds was one of the few bright spots last season, gaining more than 800 yards on the ground and adding 37 catches. Safety Hanik Milligan was another standout, leading the nation in tackles with 174.

The sore spots remain the defensive front seven, where just two starters return, and quarterback.

Houston averaged 17.3 points per game last season, the lowest scoring team in C-USA.