Following an 8-3 campaign in 2001, USF’s first year of Division I-A play, two words are on everyone’s lips – bowl game.
Currently standing at 5-2, the Bulls would be poised to be bowl eligible if they can defeat two of their three remaining Division I-A opponents – Memphis (2-6), Bowling Green (7-0) and Houston (3-4).
Unfortunately for the Bulls, that’s the easy step of the process.With 28 bowl games, many teams will enjoy the taste of postseason, but USF faces a difficult road there. All 56 slots are tied to conference affiliations, which USF lacks since it’s still an independent.
“It’s very tough to get to a bowl game,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “Very difficult as an independent. You have to have a lot of things go your way, a lot of things. And a lot of those things are outside our control, and we don’t have anything to do with it, so I try not to think about those things too much.”
The first thing that needs to occur is for one conference to fall shy of the number of bids it’s contractually obligated to fill. The Big XII has eight teams assigned bowl bids, but the conference has eight teams with winning records. Making things more problematic is that with the calendar allowing extra Saturdays, most teams are playing 12 games. In the past, teams had to have above a .500 winning percentage to go bowling, but this year bowls are accepting teams with 6-6 records.
One possible avenue could have the Bulls filling Conference USA’s fifth slot, the league USF joins next year, should it fall short of slotting teams for all its bowls.
“We’re not thinking that way right now,” said Brian Teter, C-USA’s associate commissioner. “We anticipate having five bowl-eligible teams. It could get complicated, with channels to clear and financial contracts if we do not have five bowl-eligible teams.
“Who would the fifth team be assigned to? New Orleans or Hawaii. How would our bowl partners fill that spot? Would they look at South Florida? It’s too early to tell. We’d have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Other factors that don’t seem to favor USF appearing in its first bowl in 2002 are the criteria that bowls would use to select an at-large should a conference not fill all its bowls.
“First thing we look at obviously is wins,” said David Ippoliti, executive director for the Houston Bowl, which selects C-USA’s No. 3 team. “Then we look at bowl history. Have they been there before? What’s their average attendance figure, especially their home average? How well do they travel? We look at teams used to going to a bowl, but there’s also opportunities for teams who’ve had good season.”
As an unknown factor, USF would be much more of a stretch for a bowl, as opposed to teams from the Southeastern Conference or Atlantic Coast Conference. With limited experience on the road, bowl committees might be skeptical if USF could draw enough fans to a game thousands of miles away.
Attendance is not a category USF necessarily stacks up in well. For 2001, the Bulls ranked 76th in home attendance out of 115 Division I-A teams at an average of 25,820 for seven home games. Through the first three home games of 2002, USF’s average attendance is down about 800 people per game, although USF drew 28,181 fans to Raymond James Stadium Oct. 12 vs. Southern Miss.
However, Ippoliti said that wouldn’t preclude USF from going to a bowl.
“You have to look at what’s available,” Ippoliti said. “They’re not necessarily a risk. Circumstances could be where it stands up this year that conferences with four or five bowl agreements could have two teams. It might happen. The Big 10 might not fill all its bowl slots.”
Leavitt and the Bulls remain unconcerned since they still have to control their own destiny and get six wins to become bowl eligible.
“Quite honestly, it is out of our control, and when it’s out of our control, you don’t think about it a whole lot,” Leavitt said. “You stay focused on the team you’re going to play. I think if you just stay focused on the next game and that practice and those meetings that day and film study that night, and you do those kinds of things, then it gives you a chance to win – just a chance. And if you happen to be successful, then all those things happen in due time and at the right time.”