On Labor Day in 1975, a sophomore strong safety at the University of Missouri named Jim Leavitt entered Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., and helped the Tigers defeat Alabama 20-7, the Crimson Tide’s lone defeat that season.
Almost 28 years to the day, and with the memories of that game still fresh in his mind, Leavitt will guide the USF football team into Legion Field Saturday to face Alabama in front of a national audience on ESPN.
“I remember stretching in the end zone and getting ready to play,” Leavitt said. “I had never started before. It was my first start as a sophomore, so I can remember being excited.”
Leavitt’s return to Legion Field marks another start for the coach as the Bulls enter a new era as fully-fledged members of Conference USA.
The Bulls must wait until Sept. 27 to begin C-USA play but will be fully tested against one of the most storied college football teams in the nation. Alabama has 754 wins, 12 national titles and 21 Southeastern Conference titles. The Bulls enter with an 0-2 record against the SEC, losing by an average of 28.5 points.
Those numbers, coupled with the difficulties of playing in front of a crowd exceeding 80,000 people, could pose a serious problem. It’s no secret that the Bulls haven’t played particularly well in front of large crowds, dropping road games last season against Arkansas and Oklahoma by significant margins. However, the Bulls admit they didn’t know what to expect in those games last season, and they believe the experience with the crowd and noise will help Saturday.
“This time we’re going into Alabama with a whole other mind set,” senior linebacker Maurice Jones said. “Nobody really knew what to expect in Arkansas. We heard that crowd noise and we saw how rowdy that crowd could be, and we saw what happened if you don’t play with discipline.”
The biggest problem for the Bulls in those two losses was the offense. The starters failed to score a point in both games, with the team gaining only late scores by the second team. However, the person leading the USF offense this season is the same quarterback who led the Bulls on each of those scoring drives: Ronnie Banks.
Although he is making his first start, Banks played particularly well against the Razorbacks and Sooners. And it is that success that has the Bulls believing the offense doesn’t need to make any changes against the Crimson Tide.
“We just need to attack the defense as a whole,” senior wide receiver Huey Whittaker said. “We just need to pick them apart. I don’t think we should do anything different. We should just go out and play.”
But while the offense may be well prepared, the coaching carousel at Alabama has hampered USF’s defensive preparation.
Mike Shula took over the Alabama program May 9 replacing Mike Price, who was fired for inappropriate behavior before he had coached a single game. Since Shula has been the coach for only a few months, the Bulls are in limbo as how to prepare defensively.
“Getting ready for Alabama is pretty difficult because we don’t know with Coach Shula coming in what type of offense they’re going to do,” Leavitt said. “You can only guess at things and try to do the best you can preparing. So it’s a little bit of an advantage for them.
“People can speculate all they want about all the different things you got to look at, but until that group gets together and you see the kind of personnel they have, you don’t really know.”
One thing that could help the Bulls is Shula’s track record guiding an offense. As a former offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Shula wasn’t necessarily known as an offensive guru.
But the biggest thing this weekend still remains USF’s entrance into C-USA. The Bulls have a chance to make a statement to the college-football nation and a chance to do it on national television.
Leavitt enjoyed success in his first game against Alabama. He also enjoyed success in his first game as a coach for USF. On Saturday, Leavitt and the Bulls hope to break into C-USA the same way.