Memphis relishing underdog role vs. Bulls
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jim Leavitt looked out from The Pier during a news conference Tuesday afternoon, enjoying the warm weather and remembering how as a child he'd watched fireworks there each July 4 in lawn chairs with his family.
Part of Leavitt's excitement for playing in the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl against Memphis on Dec. 20 is nostalgia -- returning to the city he grew up in, going up against an old Conference USA rival.
Most of his players don't have that history with St. Petersburg, however, and none playing next week lined up against Memphis the last time the teams met in 2004.
So one of the biggest challenges facing Leavitt is matching the motivation that Memphis will have, given a chance to upset a BCS opponent and to show the Bulls aren't better than the league they left behind.
"To have a chance to compete against a BCS (team), one of the three that left our league and went to the Big East, I'm not going to act like it's not important, because I think it is," Memphis coach Tommy West said. "When you're not in the BCS, it's a big deal. That's where we want to be."
After last year's 56-21 loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl, Leavitt admitted that Oregon had benefited from being tagged as underdogs leading up to the bowl, while USF lacked that motivation.
Now, as the Bulls open as two-touchdown favorites against Memphis in what is essentially a home game, USF will have to guard against a similar disadvantage.
"We don't mind playing that role," West said. "We'll be the underdog, and it'll be a great challenge for us."
Memphis hasn't beaten a BCS conference team since its 2004 opener against Mississippi. The Tigers are 0-7 since, but five of those losses have been by a touchdown or less, making them a dangerous opponent.
USF, along the same lines, has won its last 12 games against non-BCS teams, a streak that goes back to 2004 and a loss at home ... to Memphis.
NOT-SO-SWEET ALABAMA: Not everybody is happy with USF playing in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Tom Luicci of the Newark Star-Ledger blogs that Rutgers should be at Tropicana Field instead of being banished to Birmingham.
Rutgers is the league's hottest team, for sure, and at 7-5 has the same record as USF, with the head-to-head tiebreaker. "It makes no sense," he writes. "USF won't sell that many tickets."
A few things worth pointing out: The St. Petersburg folks who chose USF are the same folks -- ESPN Regional -- who selected Rutgers for Birmingham. They own and operate both bowls. The combined attendance with the current scenario will be appreciably higher than if Rutgers were in St. Pete and USF in Birmingham. And he points out that Papajohns.com has a low payout, but the Big East equalizes the lower bowls' payouts so each school in Birmingham, Charlotte, Toronto and St. Petersburg gets the same payout: $1-million. Maybe Rutgers loses a tiny amount in the travel reimbursement from the league, but they'd also likely be spending more in traveling to Florida. Would that many Rutgers fans want to fly to Tampa for the second time in five weeks?
And from a conference perspective, the Big East wants a hot Rutgers team facing a BCS opponent in N.C. State -- they're more likely to get two wins that way than if they had Rutgers pummel Memphis and put USF in a terribly unattractive rematch with the Wolfpack. Yes, the Bulls beat N.C. State in Raleigh, but not with current quarterback Russell Wilson at the helm.
And besides, Birmingham has Dreamland, which I'll put up against anybody's ribs ...