OK, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Last week’s win over (insert highly ranked opponent here) was the biggest in the history of the USF football program.
If you’ve been following the Bulls for any significant amount of time, I can guarantee you’ve heard that line at least once.
It was certainly uttered after the team’s 45-14 throttling of No. 9 Louisville in 2005 and repeated after the Bulls’ unexpected 24-19 upset over then-No. 7 West Virginia in Morgantown last year.
So, before I’ve even started, you might already be asking why I’m writing this column.
How many games will it take before an impressive performance against a solid team is simply another win and not the biggest one in school history? You could even argue that the reason for the Bulls’ disappointing status as the nation’s best unranked team (No. 26 in the AP poll) is because of people like me who – by insisting every win against a ranked team is a landmark one – seem to imply that, instead of a solid football team, USF is simply a lucky squad prone to surprising its opponents, but not yet worthy of a national ranking.
So why am I writing this
I’m writing it because this time was different.
While it wasn’t USF’s first win against a Top 10 conference
opponent (No. 9 Louisville in 2005) and it wasn’t the highest-ranked team the Bulls have ever beaten (No. 7 West Virginia in 2006), Saturday night’s 26-23 overtime victory against the then-No. 17 Auburn Tigers was truly the most impressive and defining win in USF history.
For one thing, the Bulls fought the Tigers head-on, refusing to rely on the misdirection and trick plays that many argued took something away from the Louisville victory in 2005 and spawned the notion that the Bulls’ were an overmatched football team that could only compete with the big boys by using sleight of hand.
Against the Cardinals that year, receiver Amarri Jackson ran for two touchdowns on reverse plays of 51 and 12 yards and found tight end Derek Carter in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass from his receiver position.
Nothing can be taken away from Jackson, who had a performance for the ages against Louisville, and no one can say using misdirection and trick plays isn’t a smart way to win a football game – just ask the Oklahoma Sooners, who probably still have nightmares of Boise State’s game-winning Statue of Liberty play in last year’s Fiesta Bowl – but it did leave room for critics to claim that USF would have lost X out of 10 games against the Cardinals that year.
So, you might say, what about the West Virginia game last year?
USF traveled to Morgantown, endured a hostile crowd of over 50,000 and served up a 24-19 loss to the nation’s No. 7 team using hardly any trick plays. The Bulls’ defense shut down Heisman Trophy hopefuls Pat White and Steve Slaton and held the country’s No. 2 rushing attack to only 132 yards on the ground. The upset was one of only two losses for West Virginia in 2006 and effectively erased any hopes the Mountaineers had of playing in a BCS Bowl game.
How can the Auburn victory possibly surpass a road win against a Top 10 Big East rival as the most defining game in USF history?
Four words: Tradition and the SEC.
Auburn University played its first collegiate football game in 1892, 105 years before USF fielded its first team.
Since joining the Southeastern Conference in 1933, the Tigers have posted a record of 668-384-48, won 18 bowl games and had 34 players go on to play in the Super Bowl. The team is also one of the most recognizable college programs in the nation and has appeared on ESPN 66 times in its history – the most of any SEC school.
Given his background, USF coach Jim Leavitt is well aware of the tradition and mystique that surrounds Auburn.
“I grew up in the South, so the Auburn deal is big for me,” Leavitt said. “I had played against Alabama and coached against Alabama but I’d never played or coached against Auburn, so it was really special for me.”
Unlike Notre Dame and Michigan, which – after disappointing seasons in recent years – rely heavily on memories of a distant past to justify their lofty status, lately, Auburn has been better than ever.
Before last Saturday, Auburn had won 22 of 23 games at Jordan-Hare Stadium and was 12-1 in night games when playing at home. In the last four years the Tigers have posted a school-record 41 victories, including a 13-win, undefeated season in 2004.
If Auburn’s tradition and history aren’t enough to justify the claim that USF’s victory was the most defining one in school history, consider that the Tigers play in what is widely considered the most elite conference in college football.
Auburn’s Southeastern Conference is home to last year’s national champion Florida Gators, and teams from the SEC have a
3-1 record in BCS Bowl games over the past three years, the most of any conference. In those BCS victories, the SEC teams have outscored their opponents 133-79.
Even scouts at the professional level understand the multitude of talent found in the SEC. In the last three years, 25 SEC players have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft, representing 38 percent of the first round picks in that time.
Oh, and here’s one more thing: The Florida Gators were one game away from having an undefeated season in 2006. That one game was a 27-17 loss to Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Florida went on to beat Ohio State 41-14 in the national championship game.
So, to sum up, I’ll say it again:
USF’s win against Auburn is the most defining moment in the history of the program.
When Matt Grothe silenced the 80,000-plus Auburn fans in Jordan-Hare Stadium – and the countless more watching on ESPN2 – with his 14-yard touchdown pass to Jessie Hester Jr. in overtime, he changed the perception of USF football forever.
By defeating one of the best teams from the nation’s best
conference on its own turf, the Bulls shed their image of a young, inexperienced program with a penchant for the upset and became a team that should be consistently mentioned in college football
conversations across the country.
Now just imagine what will
happen if they beat No. 4 West Virginia later this month.