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Fresh Juice in Florida
October 22, 2007
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
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October 22, 2007

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

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

Leavitt has created 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 Florida last Saturday, but he is only one of the master builders who have turned big-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 and Florida International, four programs so new to Division I-A that their combined years, 21, make them barely drinking age—is ready to challenge its elders.

The rise of Florida's "other" programs should come as no surprise, especially not this year, when upsets abound and the only sure thing is that there is no sure thing. The season is at its midpoint, and already there have been enough jaw-droppers to make the preseason rankings look as if the voters had pulled names out of a hat. Last Saturday was typically insane, with No. 1--ranked LSU falling at Kentucky 43--37 in triple overtime, followed by No. 2 California blowing its chance to move up to the top spot by losing at home to Oregon State 31--28. It was the first time since September 1996 that the top two teams had lost on the same day.

Those results opened the door a bit wider for South Florida, which won at Auburn and beat West Virginia when the Mountaineers were No. 5 in the nation, to do what would have been considered all but impossible a few weeks ago—slip into the BCS championship game. If Appalachian State can walk into the Big House and stun fifth-ranked Michigan, if Stanford, with its paper-thin roster, can prove to prodigiously talented USC that games aren't won with a depth chart, why should it be a shocker that USF, a program that didn't even have offices for its coaching staff three years ago, has a realistic chance to play for the national title? "It's just been that kind of year," says Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll. "You can take the concept of who's a favorite and who's an underdog and throw it out the window. You don't have to be a big-name school to win; you just have to play good football."

There is no better proof of that than South Florida, which showed impressive balance in its trouncing of Central Florida. Nimble quarterback Matt Grothe passed for 212 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 100 more yards and two other scores, while defensive end George Selvie, whose 11 1/2 sacks lead the nation, had one sack and three other tackles for losses. "You have to give credit to South Florida," said UCF quarterback Kyle Israel. "They played like where they're ranked."

A national championship for the 6--0 Bulls, the new favorite to win the Big East, would be the ultimate upset, but in Florida merely being the highest-ranked team in an increasingly competitive state is a notable accomplishment. Central Florida may have taken a pounding from the Bulls, but under coach George O'Leary the Knights (3--3, 1--1 in Conference USA) have a road victory over North Carolina State and a near-miss 35--32 loss to Texas, not to mention a spanking new 45,000-seat home, Bright House Networks Stadium. FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger, who brought Miami from obscurity to national prominence in the 1980s, 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 ever for a Sun Belt team over a Big Ten school. FIU, which spent its first three seasons in Division I-AA before moving up to I-A in 2005, hasn't had a similar breakthrough victory yet—in fact, the Panthers don't have a win of any kind this season—but first-year coach Mario Cristobal has no shortage of in-state blueprints to follow in building a successful program.

"There is big-time, high-caliber college football all over this state," says Florida coach Urban Meyer. "It's not surprising. Everybody has known for years that there is a remarkable amount of high school talent here, so when you get other schools committing the resources to upgrading their programs, they can get to be 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 PROGRAMS have tales of a humble past, and in some cases an equally humble present, as well as their relative anonymity. Leavitt recalls his team's practices stretching 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, but we didn't need one because we didn't have a weight room," he says. "We didn't have anybody to film practice, but we didn't need anyone because we didn't have any video equipment." There were also the questions about geography, which USF and UCF still deal with. South Florida is in Tampa, and no, that's nowhere near south Florida—it's closer to central Florida. Central Florida is in Orlando, which really is central Florida, and no, the Knights don't really know or care why South Florida calls itself South Florida.

They may have a hard 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 and FIU. Do a Google search for "FIU football," and the search engine's first response is, "Did you mean: FSU football?" Florida Atlantic, meanwhile, operates in the tiny shadow of Florida International. When Schnellenberger arrived at FAU, he spent much of his time convincing people that his Boca Raton school wasn't Miami-based FIU.

All the programs gladly put up with the confusion for a chance to dip into the state's talent pool, which is so deep—Florida high schools sent more than 300 players to Division I schools this season—that the four newer programs haven't had to battle the Gators, Hurricanes and Seminoles on the recruiting trail in order to thrive. "I don't think we've beaten them out for a single player," Schnellenberger says. "We're hoping that will change soon, but in the meantime the players who slip through the cracks to us are still very talented." Two of the most talented Owls were passed over by higher-profile programs. "Nobody wanted me except Coach Schnellenberger," says quarterback Rusty Smith, a sophomore from Jacksonville who threw for 463 yards and five touchdowns in the win over Minnesota. Larger schools might have thought cornerback Tavious Polo, at 146 pounds, was too scrawny coming out of South Plantation High, but Polo, now a redshirt freshman for the Owls, put on 20 pounds and has seven interceptions this season, tops in the nation.

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