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August 28, 2007

South Florida program making quick progress

Entering its 11th season of existence, the South Florida football program has grown up quickly.

It's well ahead of younger brothers Florida Atlantic and Florida International. It even has surpassed its closest sibling, UCF, as the Sunshine State's up-and-coming program.

But the Bulls still need to stage a teenage rebellion to leave the kid's table and join the Big Three of Florida, Florida State and Miami.

"Most people would say South Florida is a program that is interesting," South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said. "We're not part of the Big Three and not part of the other three. That's kind of where we are. We're a team in no man's land."

In its first decade, South Florida has grown out of Division I-AA to Conference USA and then to the Big East.

Although the last two seasons have brought South Florida its first two bowl games and first bowl win, winning lower-tier bowl games soon won't be enough for the upstart Bulls.

South Florida enters the 2007 season with the most promise in its short existence.

The Bulls return 16 starters from a team that won nine games. Under the guidance of Leavitt, they have established an identity as a tough defensive team. They also have their first marquee player of the Big East era in quarterback Matt Grothe, the league's rookie of the year.

"The biggest thing is probably that I've noticed this summer is the confidence of everybody has risen tremendously the last couple of months," said Grothe, the only quarterback in the country to pass for 2,500 yards and run for 600. "Everybody wants to win the Big East this year."

The Bulls are optimistic they can pull off the unthinkable and appear in a BCS bowl game in only their third season in a major conference.

South Florida has defeated each Big East team at least once over the last two seasons. It has picked up convincing wins over the league's top two teams as well. The Bulls earned a 45-14 win over No. 9 Louisville in 2005 and captured a 24-19 victory over No. 7 West Virginia in Morgantown last season.

"We've beaten every single team in Conference USA and every team in the Big East," Leavitt said. "To me that's the story. That's bigger than any one win. We're making some interesting steps. Every year we've done a little bit, something else has happened."

The Bulls are well aware that finishing as a top Big East team won't be enough to move them into the same breath as Florida, Florida State and Miami.

That can only happen on the field, where the Bulls are still finding their footing among state teams.

South Florida is 4-0 against UCF, FIU and FAU but lost its only game (27-7, to Miami) against the state's top three.

Upcoming schedules, however, will provide more of a measuring stick. The Bulls will have their chance in coming years with five games scheduled against Miami from 2009-13 and a home-and-home against Florida in 2010 and 2015.

RISING FAST
A look at each of Florida's Division I-A programs and when they've reached specific milestones.
SchoolFirst seasonFirst bowlFirst conf. title
Florida190619531984*
Miami192619331992
Florida State194719501992
Central Florida19792005None
South Florida19972005None
Florida Atlantic2002NoneNone
Florida International 2002NoneNone
*Vacated
The question, though, is whether Leavitt - the only football coach in school history - will be in Tampa to watch his program mature.

Despite overtures from Alabama and Kansas State, South Florida is confident Leavitt will be around to watch the Bulls go toe-to-toe with Miami and Florida.

"He ain't going nowhere," Grothe said.

Leavitt signed a seven-year, $7 million deal in 2005 to stay in Tampa. The USF campus is not far from Leavitt's high school stomping grounds, Dixie Hollins in St. Petersburg.

"The program has not only taken a step forward each year, but under Jim's leadership has taken a step forward consistently," said Doug Woolard, South Florida's athletic director since 2004. "Jim has so much passion for this area. This is where his roots are."

Leavitt has shown on the recruiting trail just how deep his roots go in the state. Ninety percent of the players on South Florida's 2007 roster come from Florida.

South Florida is looking to win in-state bragging rights on and off the field. South Florida seldom recruits head-to-head with the state's big programs. They rarely compete with the "Big Three" for a top prospect. However, each small victory counts.

"We still have to sell it pretty hard," Leavitt said. "(But) our recruiting has changed. We're able to get in on the right guys. We've been able to beat Florida, Florida State and Miami on one guy (each), and then beat them on two. Suddenly, that's six (playing for South Florida)."

Much more could change with a strong performance Sept. 8 at No. 18 Auburn, in what will likely be the toughest nonconference game for any Big East team.

Before defeating North Carolina in Chapel Hill last year, South Florida had lost eight consecutive games to nonconference opponents from BCS leagues.

There's a sense of opportunity at South Florida, a chance for the program to leave behind its childhood and join the grown-ups of Florida, Florida State and Miami.

"We should have a good team this year," Grothe said. "We have a pretty dang tough schedule this year. If we do well we should be right up there."

MORE ON THE STATE OF FOOTBALL IN FLORIDA:
Shannon bringing swagger back at Miami | Florida State revamps coaching staff
Gators defense must rely on new faces | Balance of power always shifting

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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