Success came swiftly and left just as quickly for the South Florida football team.
During the last two seasons, the Bulls had their first national ranking — reaching as high as No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings last year — their first trip to the Brut Sun Bowl and their first preseason ranking when they started the 2008 season at No. 19 in the Associated Press poll.
This season’s new first for USF came in the form of a big, bright spotlight.
The Bulls have never had to deal with that pressure throughout an entire season. And, for the first time in coach Jim Leavitt’s career at the helm of USF, his team underachieved.
Don’t believe me?
USF was predicted to finish second in the Big East Conference in the preseason poll. It was supposed to be the breakout season for quarterback Matt Grothe and the icing on a fine USF career for potential first-round NFL draft pick George Selvie.
This was “the” year. This was the year when USF would stop competing in the Big East and start its collection of Big East championship trophies. And, for a while, it looked like it could be.
The Bulls started 5-0 (again) and climbed into the Top 10. Then, for the second consecutive season, USF faltered in conference play, losing four of its first five games, to fall out of contention for not only a National Championship, but a Big East Championship as well.
The four losses marked the first time since joining the Big East in 2005 that the Bulls will have a losing conference record, regardless of what happens at West Virginia on Saturday.
The losses also proved that USF just wasn’t ready to take the conference.
Grothe — the school’s all-time leader in interceptions thrown — cut down on his mistakes, throwing three during the first five games. Since then, he’s thrown nine, putting him near his career high of 14, which he had in each of his first two seasons.
Other setbacks plagued the Bulls.
Selvie, who had 14.5 sacks last season when he became the school’s first Consensus All-American, was injured during the Bulls’ underwhelming 17-9 win at Florida International on Sept. 20 and hasn’t been the same since.
Senior linebacker Brouce Mompremier had his USF career end as a result of a neck injury suffered during the same game.
In fact, USF has had about 20 players miss time throughout the season, which the coaching staff said is something USF has never had to deal with.
USF also faced the hardest part of its Big East schedule when it played three games in 12 days between Oct. 18 and 30 while decimated with injuries.
It was up to the coaches and players on the field, however, to make up for that. They didn’t.
USF has given up big plays late in games all season — such as two late touchdowns against Central Florida, two late scores to FIU and fourth-quarter scores to Pittsburgh and Louisville that caused USF to lose both games.
USF hit a low point when Rutgers scored 49 points at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 15. Not only was that more points than USF has ever allowed at home, it was the most Rutgers scored against a Big East opponent since scoring 41 against Louisville last year.
The Bulls haven’t lived up to the hype this season, but one factor may have contributed to that failure.
The fans, who were excited for the big season, stopped turning out after one conference loss. The attendance at each game after Pittsburgh dropped until it hit a low of 26,677 for the Connecticut game on Nov. 23.
Leavitt has done an outstanding job building a program from scratch and bringing it to national prominence, where it is likely to stay — once he gets the Bulls over the hump, that is.
Until then, perhaps playing without the bright lights shining in their faces will be a good thing for the Bulls. Maybe flying underneath the radar of the public, as they did before their breakout year, will do the Bulls good.
After all, they played their best when nobody was watching.