Let’s put that big USF win against Florida State in context.
Even though the Bulls have had wins against higher ranked opponents – most notably No. 5 West Virginia in 2007 – this one against Brigham Young-bashing, 18th-ranked FSU was special. Now in its 13th season of football, USF has craved peer acceptance by this state’s “Big Three” – Florida, Florida State and Miami. Beating marquee names such as WVU, Kansas and Auburn, however impressive, still didn’t produce in-state parity.
The only way to do that was for USF to actually beat one of the “Big Three.” Mission accomplished: 17-7 in Tallahassee in front of FSU’s biggest crowd in four years. Granted, the Seminoles aren’t the FSU of the ‘90s, but FSU remains a brand name. USF is a relatively brand new name.
“There are defining moments in the life of a football team and in the life of a university,” rhapsodized USF President Judy Genshaft in an alumni e-mail. “This was one of them.”
True, but what USF does the next two games will be no less definitive. That’s because the Bulls find themselves in a familiar subplot. Theirs is a deja view right now.
For the third straight season, USF goes into October undefeated – and emboldened by the impetus from a high-profile, nationally noted win. But this is where USF has faltered. This is where USF necessarily goes from hunter to hunted. Some teams don’t handle the pressure of wearing a target. USF has been one of those.
Animated, high-energy head coach Jim Leavitt was the perfect choice to lead the USF program from inception. And to establish the sort of credibility that helped get the Bulls into the Big East. And to take them to three bowl games.
But he’s not made a believer out of a growing number of observers who have misgivings about his ability to take USF to the next level. That is to actually be a contender in the Big East and to be in the hunt for something better than the St. Petersburg Bowl. To not be satisfied with early season, eye-opening, upset victories.
Frankly, I’m one of those with doubts.
Too often USF has folded under the pressure of being the favorite – based on their record and their personnel – against a lesser opponent, a Rutgers or a Connecticut. The Bulls have seemed a composure-challenged extension of Leavitt, too often a frenetic, frantic presence on the sideline. The Bulls have lost with a glaring lack of discipline – from blatantly bad penalties to careless clock management to odd play-calling. They look like a team trying not to lose — as opposed to one playing with abandon to win against a favored opponent.
Frankly, I’d love to be disproven.
In fact, I look forward to a large serving of journalistic humble pie after an impressive Bulls’ win on the road against underdog Syracuse on Saturday. USF is too talented to be satisfied with minor bowls, occasional upsets and Big East also-ran status. The mettle-detector games start with Syracuse – and then highly regarded Cincinnati comes to Tampa Oct. 15 for a nationally-televised Thursday night game.
And then we’ll know. We’ll all know.