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Fresh Juice in Florida

Oct. 22, 2007
Oct. 22, 2007

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Oct. 22, 2007

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Fresh Juice in Florida

In a state loaded with talent and long ruled by the Big Three, No. 2--ranked South Florida is leading the charge for a quartet of up-and-comers that are eager to become powers themselves

DESPITE THEstate's fertile soil, tropical climate and nourishing sunshine, not every cropin Florida rises organically from the earth. College football programs, unlikecitrus groves and sugarcane fields, are not grown so much as they areconstructed, sometimes quite literally. It was only 11 years ago, for instance,that South Florida coach Jim Leavitt parked his car near his fledgling team'snew practice facility and sat there past midnight, making sure that the fenceposts around the field stayed perfectly upright in the drying concrete.Foundation, after all, is everything.

This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2007 issue

Leavitt hascreated a solid one at South Florida, whose Bulls rose to No. 2 in the nation(and received 11 first-place votes) after their 64--12 win over Central Floridalast Saturday, but he is only one of the master builders who have turnedbig-time college football into a growth industry in the Sunshine State.Florida, Florida State and Miami have been the state's Big Three for decades,but the next generation—South Florida, Central Florida, Florida Atlantic andFlorida International, four programs so new to Division I-A that their combinedyears, 21, make them barely drinking age—is ready to challenge its elders.

The rise ofFlorida's "other" programs should come as no surprise, especially notthis year, when upsets abound and the only sure thing is that there is no surething. The season is at its midpoint, and already there have been enoughjaw-droppers to make the preseason rankings look as if the voters had pullednames out of a hat. Last Saturday was typically insane, with No. 1--ranked LSUfalling at Kentucky 43--37 in triple overtime, followed by No. 2 Californiablowing its chance to move up to the top spot by losing at home to Oregon State31--28. It was the first time since September 1996 that the top two teams hadlost on the same day.

Those resultsopened the door a bit wider for South Florida, which won at Auburn and beatWest Virginia when the Mountaineers were No. 5 in the nation, to do what wouldhave been considered all but impossible a few weeks ago—slip into the BCSchampionship game. If Appalachian State can walk into the Big House and stunfifth-ranked Michigan, if Stanford, with its paper-thin roster, can prove toprodigiously talented USC that games aren't won with a depth chart, why shouldit be a shocker that USF, a program that didn't even have offices for itscoaching staff three years ago, has a realistic chance to play for the nationaltitle? "It's just been that kind of year," says Southern Cal coach PeteCarroll. "You can take the concept of who's a favorite and who's anunderdog and throw it out the window. You don't have to be a big-name school towin; you just have to play good football."

There is nobetter proof of that than South Florida, which showed impressive balance in itstrouncing of Central Florida. Nimble quarterback Matt Grothe passed for 212yards and two touchdowns and ran for 100 more yards and two other scores, whiledefensive end George Selvie, whose 11 1/2 sacks lead the nation, had one sackand three other tackles for losses. "You have to give credit to SouthFlorida," said UCF quarterback Kyle Israel. "They played like wherethey're ranked."

A nationalchampionship for the 6--0 Bulls, the new favorite to win the Big East, would bethe ultimate upset, but in Florida merely being the highest-ranked team in anincreasingly competitive state is a notable accomplishment. Central Florida mayhave taken a pounding from the Bulls, but under coach George O'Leary theKnights (3--3, 1--1 in Conference USA) have a road victory over North CarolinaState and a near-miss 35--32 loss to Texas, not to mention a spanking new45,000-seat home, Bright House Networks Stadium. FAU coach HowardSchnellenberger, who brought Miami from obscurity to national prominence in the1980s, just might have the Owls (3--3, 2--0 in the Sun Belt) on the same path,judging from their 42--39 win over Minnesota last month, the first victory everfor a Sun Belt team over a Big Ten school. FIU, which spent its first threeseasons in Division I-AA before moving up to I-A in 2005, hasn't had a similarbreakthrough victory yet—in fact, the Panthers don't have a win of any kindthis season—but first-year coach Mario Cristobal has no shortage of in-stateblueprints to follow in building a successful program.

"There isbig-time, high-caliber college football all over this state," says Floridacoach Urban Meyer. "It's not surprising. Everybody has known for years thatthere is a remarkable amount of high school talent here, so when you get otherschools committing the resources to upgrading their programs, they can get tobe very competitive in a hurry. South Florida's success speaks for itself.Central Florida is very good. It probably won't be long for FAU and FIU either.This is no fluke."

ALL FOUR PROGRAMShave tales of a humble past, and in some cases an equally humble present, aswell as their relative anonymity. Leavitt recalls his team's practicesstretching into dusk and being illuminated by the headlights of his assistants'cars because the field had no lights. "We didn't have a strength coach, butwe didn't need one because we didn't have a weight room," he says. "Wedidn't have anybody to film practice, but we didn't need anyone because wedidn't have any video equipment." There were also the questions aboutgeography, which USF and UCF still deal with. South Florida is in Tampa, andno, that's nowhere near south Florida—it's closer to central Florida. CentralFlorida is in Orlando, which really is central Florida, and no, the Knightsdon't really know or care why South Florida calls itself South Florida.

They may have ahard time distinguishing themselves from each other in the minds of the public,but in name recognition USF and UCF are Brad and Angelina compared with FAU andFIU. Do a Google search for "FIU football," and the search engine'sfirst response is, "Did you mean: FSU football?" Florida Atlantic,meanwhile, operates in the tiny shadow of Florida International. WhenSchnellenberger arrived at FAU, he spent much of his time convincing peoplethat his Boca Raton school wasn't Miami-based FIU.

All the programsgladly put up with the confusion for a chance to dip into the state's talentpool, which is so deep—Florida high schools sent more than 300 players toDivision I schools this season—that the four newer programs haven't had tobattle the Gators, Hurricanes and Seminoles on the recruiting trail in order tothrive. "I don't think we've beaten them out for a single player,"Schnellenberger says. "We're hoping that will change soon, but in themeantime the players who slip through the cracks to us are still verytalented." Two of the most talented Owls were passed over by higher-profileprograms. "Nobody wanted me except Coach Schnellenberger," saysquarterback Rusty Smith, a sophomore from Jacksonville who threw for 463 yardsand five touchdowns in the win over Minnesota. Larger schools might havethought cornerback Tavious Polo, at 146 pounds, was too scrawny coming out ofSouth Plantation High, but Polo, now a redshirt freshman for the Owls, put on20 pounds and has seven interceptions this season, tops in the nation.

Florida's otherupstarts have their share of overachievers as well. Selvie was a center at PineForest High in Pensacola who had his sights set on Division II until the Bullsshowed an interest. After spending a redshirt year on the offensive line, heswitched to defensive end, where he's one of the most disruptive forces in thenation. Central Florida's Kevin Smith was a running back at Miami SouthridgeHigh until he was moved to safety before his senior year, dropping him off theradar of several major programs. The Knights switched him back to running back,and he has rewarded them with 152.5 rushing yards a game this season, thirdbest in the nation.

"Kids aresmart," says Cristobal. "They're starting to look at which schoolsalready have enough depth and which schools might offer them a chance to playright away. Is it worth it to be third-string at a big-name school when youcould be first-string at a lesser-known school and maybe help start atradition? That's why you see some of the newer programs making a name forthemselves, and we think FIU is going to follow that same path."

NOTWITHSTANDINGUSF'S lofty ranking, the four younger programs still have some distance to goin terms of recognition. But the Bulls at least are beginning to drawdisparaging comments from coaches at higher-profile programs, a sure sign thatthey are perceived as a serious competitor. In late September. Florida Statecoach Bobby Bowden said that he would be "amazed" if the Bullsmaintained their ranking all season, and Alabama's Nick Saban questioned USF'sadmissions standards. "There's a significant amount of players who don'tqualify [at some schools], and they end up being pretty good players at someother schools," Saban told The Birmingham News. "I think there are sixguys starting on South Florida's defense who probably could have gone toFlorida or Florida State, but Florida and Florida State couldn't takethem."

Saban didn'tindicate who those players are, nor did he offer other specifics to back up hispoint. "It's not right," Leavitt told The Tampa Tribune. "Of 110players, we have two [academic] nonqualifiers. One starts, one doesn't....Whoever gave him that information needs to correct it."

Though he'simpressed with the progress of the state's other Division I-A neophytes,Leavitt has made it clear he has no interest in being grouped with them as cutelittle underdogs. "There are four BCS schools in this state, and that'sSouth Florida, Florida, Florida State and Miami," he says. "If we'regoing to be lumped in with other teams, that's the group we should be in."That stance is part of South Florida's effort to make sure its BCS affiliationisn't forgotten when bowl bids are handed out. If the Bulls do run the table inthe Big East—Rutgers, No. 23 Cincinnati and Louisville all loom as significantroadblocks—they don't want to be leapfrogged by a one-loss team that trumpsthem only in profile or tradition.

But whether ornot South Florida finishes undefeated, the Bulls and their fellow Floridaupstarts have made serious inroads into the in-state dominance of the BigThree. The nation has begun to take notice and, more important, so haverecruits all across the Sunshine State, the ones who can make sure the growthof the young programs continues. In some ways the four newcomers are startingto resemble the crops that rise out of Florida's soil—with the proper nurturingand replenishment they could grow into something strong and lasting. If youthink they're bearing fruit now, come back in a few years. They might be morebountiful than you ever imagined.

"Kids are smart," says Cristobal. "They'restarting to look at which schools might offer them a chance to PLAY RIGHTAWAY."

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BCS Buzz

Undefeated Ohio State and South Florida debuted atNos. 1 and 2 in the first BCS standings. About the only certainty in thisunpredictable season is that both will get knocked off. No. 4 LSU, the mostcomplete team in the country, will rebound from its loss at Kentucky, whileDennis Dixon (right) and No. 10 Oregon will take advantage of a favorable,albeit difficult, home schedule.

Jan. 1 Rose: OHIO STATE vs. ARIZONA STATE

Jan. 1 Sugar: FLORIDA vs. HAWAII

Jan. 2 Fiesta: OKLAHOMA vs. SOUTH FLORIDA

Jan. 3 Orange: BOSTON COLLEGE vs. TEXAS

Jan. 7 BCS Championship: LSU vs. OREGON

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoBULL RUSH Grothe (8) accounted for four scores against Central Florida while Selvie (95) leads the country in sacks.PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above]PHOTOERIC ESPADA/CAL SPORT MEDIA (SMITH)UNDER THE RADAR Lightly recruited Rusty Smith helped put the Owls on the map by directing an upset of Minnesota.PHOTOLYNNE SLADKY/AP (CRISTOBAL)[See caption above]PHOTOCHRIS O'MEARA/AP (SMITH)WANTED While marquee programs backed off, Central Florida recruited Kevin Smith as a running back.PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (DIXON)