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After a promising start, USF gets an unexpected ending

“I’m always going to be disappointed if we don’t play for 
the Big East championship,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said.

Getty Images

“I’m always going to be disappointed if we don’t play for the Big East championship,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said.

TAMPA

It will end with a whisper. In a disappointing season for the USF Bulls, perhaps that is the most disappointing notion of all.

In the end, there will be no talk of titles or trophies. The representatives of the more prestigious bowls will not gather. The pollsters will not break into spontaneous applause.

For the Bulls, all that remains is just another game and just another small headline.

That, and the unanswered question of what might have been.

It should have been more. You can say that about the Bulls' season, and you can say it about Saturday's game at West Virginia. There should have been more victories, more improvement and, as the final game of the regular season approaches, more at stake.

The Big East title? Maybe.

A BCS game? Perhaps.

A Top 20 ranking? Possibly.

Instead, the Bulls will finish their season with the rare feeling of underachievement. Yes, they will finish with a winning record, and, yes, they will go to their fourth straight bowl game.

Still, it is hard to escape the feeling the Bulls somehow let something bigger get away.

Was the first of October really that long ago? If you remember, the Bulls were 5-0 and ranked 10th in the country. Oh, looking back, USF was never the 10th-best team in America. At the time, however, the Bulls certainly looked good enough to make a run for the Big East title.

Since then, the season has been a struggle. The Bulls are 2-4 in their past six games. Injuries have mounted. Shortcomings have been exposed. As for the ranking? The latest BCS computer polls have them somewhere from 39th to 45th.

"I'm a split personality on this season," Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said Tuesday. "That's the best way to describe it. On one hand, I'm very angry. I'm disappointed with the losses. I'm disappointed we didn't coach better. I'm disappointed with the injuries. But I'm not discouraged with the program.

"In the past four years, these guys have done some remarkable things. They've won some remarkable games. Four bowl games in four years? Who would have thought that when we started?"

It was midday, and Leavitt sat on a couch in his office watching tapes. The image of West Virginia quarterback Pat White was frozen on the screen. Odds are, the Mountaineers expected to be playing for more, too.

"Should we have coached better? Without question," Leavitt said. "I'm always going to be disappointed if we don't play for the Big East championship. That's my mentality.

"If we don't win, I struggle. I get angry; I go through all of the emotions. I don't care if we have 50 players hurt. You should do more with the other guys. You should find a way."

Instead, these Bulls seemed to lose their way. Offensive players didn't seem to get better. Defensive players didn't seem to stay focused. Coaches didn't seem to have the answers. And a promising September turned into a perplexing October.

And as far as that exotic bowl trip that some Bulls fans might have wanted? How does the St. Petersburg Bowl sound? Nothing against St. Petersburg, but will traveling 20 miles to feed the birds at Sunken Gardens really make anyone forget getting outplayed by Louisville or outcoached by Pitt? (Or was it the other way around?)

If there is disappointment, and there should be, it comes with a compliment hidden inside. By now, people expect the Bulls to be better than this.

"I think it says a lot when people are mad because you're 'only' going to a bowl game," Leavitt said. "That's a pretty powerful statement of where we've brought this team in eight years of I-A football."

On the other hand, high expectations are a good thing. A 7-4 record should be disappointing. Being sixth in an eight-team conference should be disappointing. Not taking better advantage of a 5-0 start should be disappointing.

So what happened?

Perhaps USF simply wasn't as good as you thought. Even at 5-0, the secondary was suspect. Perhaps there were too many injuries in positions with too little depth. Perhaps it's as simple as coaches not coaching well enough and players not playing well enough.

Perhaps the problem, too, was that the season was played in reverse. If the Bulls had won their past five instead of their first five, if they looked like an improving team at the end, perhaps this season would feel better.

The regular season ends Saturday night.

Sadly, the promise seemed to end long ago.

USF at West Virginia

8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2

After a promising start, USF gets an unexpected ending 12/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 4, 2008 9:28am]
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