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The next Big (East) thing?

South Florida looks to prove chops vs. West Virginia

Posted: Friday September 28, 2007 1:10PM; Updated: Friday September 28, 2007 4:17PM
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Jim Leavitt
Starting in 1997, head coach Jim Leavitt has built South Florida from scratch.
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Think of the Big East as a kind of Ellis Island for college football, a gateway conference where programs long-suffering and oppressed can find a home in the Top 25. In recent seasons we've seen Louisville and Rutgers reach those exalted shores. Let's give a warm welcome to the Big East's latest and least plausible addition to college football's gentry, a program that did not exist a dozen years ago.

Behold the South Florida Bulls, ranked 18th in the country in their 12th year of existence. With wins over Auburn and North Carolina this season to go alongside an upset of West Virginia last November, these Bulls are for real. Their showdown against the fifth-ranked Mountaineers tonight is college football's game of the week.

It's heady stuff at a school that had its first season of football in 1997. (After a four-season apprenticeship in Division I-AA, the Bulls graduated to Div. I-A in '01.) Taking the South Florida job was a homecoming for head coach Jim Leavitt, a St. Petersburg native. Asked at his first press conference where he would live, the Type A-plus skipper replied, "In my office."

How intense is Leavitt? Suffice it to say that he is an acolyte of Bill Snyder, the former Kansas State coach who once told reporters, "Most of you understand, my time is spent with football, and that's an 18-hour day. The rest of my time is spent with family."

While he may not be the guy you want to be seated next to at a dinner party, Leavitt's insuperable work ethic and keen football acumen have fast-tracked this program, located north of Tampa. But that stuff will only get you so far against the West Virginias and Auburns of the world (the Bulls' most recent marquee victims). Leavitt's got some serious talent on his roster. Take a look:

Matt Grothe (GROW-thee) had already committed to South Florida when South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier decided he wanted the gunslinger from Lakeland, Fla. Grothe, who wanted to stay closer to home, honored his commitment to Leavitt. "He's a little bit like Pat White, a little bit like Tim Tebow," is how Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez describes Grothe, a 6-foot, 213-pound run-pass threat who connected on 22 of his 30 passes, for 279 yards, in the Bulls monstrous upset of West Virginia last November.

• Freshmen running backs Jamar Taylor and Mike Ford were ticketed for Alabama. Taylor, the burner, was Nick Saban's first commit. But he had family issues, bailed on 'Bama, got a hardship waiver, and enrolled at South Florida. Ford, a five-star banger out of Sarasota, signed with the Tide but never qualified academically. After a year of prep school and a stint at a juco last fall, this bull of a back is now a Bull.

George Selvie's backstory is almost as ridiculous as his numbers: the third-year sophomore defensive end leads the nation in sacks (8 ) and tackles for loss (15). Bear in mind, the Bulls have played just three games. Coming out of what Pine Forest High in Pensacola, Selvie's sole D-I offer was from South Florida. He spent last season at center, but was switched to defensive end because he couldn't keep weight on. That was probably a good thing. Recalling, perhaps, how lightly recruited he was, the 6-4, 245-pounder plays angry -- in games and in practice. Take a play off, he will embarrass you.

Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins are lockdown corners with NFL futures. West Virginia expects the Bulls to try to take away the run, and make White beat them with his arm. That's a challenge White will welcome. I was in Morgantown last week for the Mountaineers' 48-7 dismantling of overmatched East Carolina. I'd not seen White in person before. Coming off a poor game against Maryland, the dual-threat lefty was on fire against the Pirates, making flawless decisions on the option; zipping pass after pass into tight spots. In addition to running for 42 yards and a pair of scores, he completed 18 of 20 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. It was the most impressive quarterbacking performance I've seen this season.

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