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.
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.
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
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.
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.