Crashing C-USA

So much for sneaking up on anyone. That’s what happens with a 9-2 season and a perfect 4-0 record against Conference USA. But those didn’t count. Starting this year, those contests will be league games, giving USF access to the things it could only dream about before — bowl games and championships.

In the past, the Bulls said those were the goals. Yet, they seemed so distant without that C-USA attachment.

“What carrot do you hold in front of your team other than receiving a degree at the university and playing college football?” coach Jim Leavitt said. “Now, you have championships and bowl game opportunities out there and they’re real. Hopefully, that drives them.”

Even with those nine wins, the dream of a bowl game was dangled in front of USF, then snatched away. The team had a bid to the Hawaii Bowl, but it was contingent upon Cincinnati losing. So, USF waited a week, then watched the Bearcats trample East Carolina and their bowl dreams.

“We were hopeful that we would go to a bowl game last year,” Leavitt said. “I told them if we went 9-2 we’d have a great shot. I was wrong. After our last game, I really thought we had a real good shot. But, it didn’t happen.”

But now, it can happen. It’s just going to take wins.

“Last year, we were still independent,” wide receiver Huey Whittaker said. “This year, we’re in C-USA. There can’t be any more politics. There can’t be any maybes. We do what we have to do on the field, and it will work itself out.”

That’s what makes Sept. 27 so important. That’s the first time USF will get its hands on a conference opponent. While Army shouldn’t be much of a problem because the Black Knights have finished at the bottom of the conference standings for years, the rest of the league will have much more interest in the Bulls.

Take Southern Miss for instance. After thumping Houston to close the 2001 season, the Bulls captured their first C-USA win of the season in a nailbiter. A missed 37-yard field goal as time expired was the difference in the 16-13 win.

It was a game years in the making for the USF upperclassmen. The Bulls, as a Division I-AA team, went to Hattiesburg, Miss., in 2000 and walked away with a 41-7 drubbing. This year, the Bulls have to go back there and avenge the memories of that team, which never had the chances this year’s Bulls possess.

The Golden Eagles were one of C-USA’s five bowl teams last year, and the conference again has that many berths this season. Opinion on whether USF is one of those teams is up in the air. Athlon’s Sports pegged USF third in the league and Street and Smith’s tabbed the Bulls at No. 5. Rest assured East Carolina (46-30) and Memphis (31-28) also want some revenge after being handed defeats from USF. The fact USF is being picked ahead of both those teams will serve as further motivation.

For USF, there’s the desire to prove the league wrong after it made the Bulls wait two years after jumping to Division I-A to become a member.

“It’s something we’re ready for and now we get to prove that we are,” senior safety J.R. Reed said. “It affected a lot of people a couple years ago. A lot of seniors wanted to be in C-USA. We were undefeated in C-USA last year, so we’ve got a year to prove ourselves right here.”