Big East championship within reach

During the first six weeks of the season, the Bulls flirted with what could have been: An undefeated season and speculation about whether they “deserve” a national title shot.

Although all that talk was from those outside the program, USF has never wavered about its only goal: To win the Big East Championship.

The Bulls’ loss to Rutgers left upcoming opponent Connecticut as the conference’s only undefeated team. USF must win out, and the Scarlet Knights must suffer another defeat in Big East play, for the Bulls to achieve their goal.

“We believe we’re going to win it,” quarterback Matt Grothe said. “I don’t think we need help at all.”

The Bulls have split their two conference games, and coach Jim Leavitt believes a second loss in Big East play will ruin their title chances.

The five remaining games on the Bulls’ schedule are conference games, with three, including Saturday’s game, away from Raymond James Stadium.

Two seasons ago, the Huskies ended USF’s conference title possibility with a 15-10 loss at Rentschler Field.

“Definitely – we talk about that every summer,” cornerback Mike Jenkins said. “Now we just have to win out in the Big East and hope that will be enough.”

If the Bulls win and West Virginia defeats Rutgers, USF will claim first place in the Big East.

“We still have a shot at winning it. Everything starts with this game coming up,” cornerback Trae Williams said. “I think we’re still in control of our own destiny. If we just win out then we won’t have to worry about it. But if West Virginia wins that will be a big push for us.”

But the No. 11 Bulls will be facing a much different team than the one they defeated 38-16 last season.

For the first time in school history, the Huskies are ranked in the Bowl Championship Series standings at No. 23, and have the sixth-ranked defense in the nation.

Connecticut is holding its opponents to 12.7 points per game, and no opponent has scored more than 17 this season. The Huskies held Louisville’s potent offense to 17 points last Friday, down from its average of 38.6.

“I think one of the reasons why they play so well is because they don’t give up any big plays,” Grothe said. “They never have missed coverage or a bust on defense. You don’t have to depend on your offense as much when you have a defense like they do.”

The Huskies have been playing football since 1896, but earned Division I status in 2002 and started playing Big East football in 2004. In their 111 years of existence, they have never defeated a ranked opponent.

Since 2000, Connecticut is 0-9 against opponents ranked in the top 25.

If the Huskies are handed their first conference loss of the season, USF will take a major step toward achieving its goal.

“Luckily it won’t be too cold when we get up there this year,” Jenkins said. “A lot of people said we were going to fall out later in the year, but now we’re just trying to maintain (our focus) and win.”