What might have been

Given the opportunity, Southern Miss and USF could have had a heated in-conference rivalry.

The USF football team, however, looking to continue its rise from start-up to consistent winner, isn’t going to slow down for a rivalry. Not when a spot in the Big East Conference beckons.

Only eight years after opening play, USF coach Jim Leavitt’s Bulls have moved into college football’s top division, posted six straight winning seasons and are on the verge of moving into one of the country’s elite leagues when they bolt Conference USA after just two seasons for the Big East and a better chance at a potential Bowl Championship Series berth next year.

“They’ve got a good program,” said Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower. “They’ve done a good job recruiting. All you need to know is they’ve won 33 out of 37 (home games in school history). If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will.”

In just three years at the Division I-A level, the Bulls are 24-9, including a 9-2 mark in 2002 and a 7-4 mark in last year’s C-USA debut.

Still, USF is in search of its first bowl appearance. That 9-2 record and national ranking weren’t good enough to notch a postseason bid as an independent two years ago, and the Bulls were passed over for conference-mates Louisville, Houston and Memphis last year — two of whom the Bulls defeated head-to-head and none of whom bettered USF’s 5-3 conference mark.

One of those three C-USA losses in 2003 was in Hattiesburg, a 27-6 Southern Miss win that catapulted the Golden Eagles into a six-game win streak to close the regular season. In the teams’ three meetings since 2000, the home team has won each time.

The Golden Eagles’ last trip to Tampa ended in a 16-13 defeat when Curt Jones missed a 43-yard field goal to tie on the game’s final play in 2002. It was perhaps the most high-profile victory in a three-and-a-half-year, 21-game home win streak USF posted from 2000 to 2003.

“I don’t think we played badly in Tampa the last time we were there,” said Bower. “They’re a pretty good football team. I really believe they are. We didn’t make the plays we had to make to win the game, but I thought we played hard. They’re a good home football team.”

The Bulls’ streak ended in a 13-10 loss to TCU last year, a defeat USF avenged last week by snapping the Horned Frogs’ 15-game home winning streak in a wild double-overtime win in Fort Worth. The Bulls scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and had the benefit of a botched snap by TCU on an extra point to tie in the second overtime. It was South Florida’s fourth double-OT victory in as many tries in the past two seasons.

The game was also a coming-out party for two new USF backfield mates, quarterback Pat Julmiste and running back Andre Hall.

Julmiste, a sophomore who wrestled the job away from 2003 starter Ronnie Banks, tossed a career-high 324 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in his fifth career start.

Hall, a two-time junior college All-American at Georgia Military Academy in 2002 and Garden City Community College in 2003, ran for 119 yards on 28 carries against the Horned Frogs. Hall also scored four touchdowns, two in overtime, and broke a 58-yard run to the TCU one-yard line early in the game to set up another score.

“Their running back (Hall) is good,” said Bower. “He’s a big-time player. I think he was a top ten recruit in the country. He’s strong, fast, he has it all.”

For Southern Miss, quarterback Dustin Almond is returning to the site of his first significant college action. Almond threw for a career-high 258 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions as a redshirt freshman in Tampa in 2002 and temporarily won the starting job from Micky D’Angelo. Last year, Almond began to solidify his hold on the position with a 175-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Bulls, highlighted by an 80-yard scoring strike to Marvin Young on the game’s first play from scrimmage.

“(Tampa) is definitely a tough place to play,” said Almond, who enters against USF as the entrenched starter for the first time. “(But) I feel ten times better going into this year’s game than I did two years ago.”