NEWPORT, R.I. — Used to be, the Big East's preseason media poll was an annual source of motivation for USF, a late-summer dose of disrespect to help push the Bulls to prove themselves better than predicted.
It's getting harder and harder to do that. USF was picked to finish second in the Big East on Tuesday, getting a first-place vote and setting the Bulls as the top challenger to West Virginia for the league crown.
"We have to get used to having a target on our back," said linebacker Brouce Mompremier, one of four players representing USF at the league's media gathering. "It's just getting used to that and working hard to stay there."
It's the third consecutive year USF has moved up in the preseason poll, having been picked seventh in Newport in 2005, fifth in 2006 and fourth last season. USF has finished 4-3 in each of its three Big East seasons, tying for either third or fourth place in the final standings. Players said the poll doesn't change the standards the Bulls set for themselves.
"Pressure comes with everything," linebacker Tyrone McKenzie said. "We're picked No. 2, which means a lot of people are showing us respect. We have to show we earned that spot."
Coach Jim Leavitt said the high expectations make it harder to play the underdog card, to have USF motivated by a perceived lack of respect. At the same time, he said there's still plenty USF hasn't accomplished and still seeks.
"We haven't won a championship. We've never won the Big East. We've never won a BCS (bowl) game. We've never beaten a BCS team in a bowl. There's a lot of nevers for the University of South Florida to not have a lot to climb to. But we've never been considered where we are now."
THIS AND THAT: Sophomore Sampson Genus, a guard shifted to defense this spring, has shown enough promise that he's listed as the starting nose tackle on the depth chart. "If Sampson's going to be on defense, he's going to play for us," Leavitt said. … USF's season opener Aug. 30 against Tennessee-Martin will have a 7:30 p.m. kickoff and will be broadcast locally on Bright House Networks' Catch 47. … With Pittsburgh picked third in the league, USF's Big East opener against the Panthers on Oct. 2, could be a battle of undefeated teams. USF will take advantage of the Thursday night national spotlight, playing host to representatives from all the BCS bowls and bowls with Big East affiliations.