TAMPA — Against nearly anyone it can play, USF's football program will always be the younger one on the field, trying to counter decades of established tradition with a quick rise to national relevance.
But Saturday, the 14-year-old Bulls (2-1) will be the old guard, lining up against Florida Atlantic (1-2), a program that launched in 2001 — four years after USF — and sees USF as a model to follow.
"We look forward to this game, because we have emulated most everything that South Florida did," said Owls coach Howard Schnellenberger, 76, who was an assistant coach under Bear Bryant at Alabama when FAU was founded as a university in 1964 in Boca Raton.
"They've progressed farther than we have. We're four or five years behind them. I kind of keep a chart of where they were at our time, but here in the last several years, they've really progressed. What an example for other schools."
Schnellenberger has been there for all 10 seasons at FAU, which moved into Division I-A and the Sun Belt Conference in 2005. In some instances, the Owls have outpaced the Bulls' ascent. They needed just 22 games to beat a I-A team (Middle Tennessee State in 2003), becoming the fastest program to do so, and were quicker than USF to get to a bowl game (and win), the 2007 New Orleans Bowl in their seventh season.
(USF got its first Division I-A win in its fourth season, and 41st game, against Connecticut in 2000. It made its first bowl appearance in its ninth season, the 2005 Meineke Bowl, losing to N.C. State).
The Owls have a conference championship on their resume, something USF is still seeking, but much of FAU's success has been within the context of the Sun Belt, arguably the weakest of the 11 conferences in I-A. FAU has never beaten a ranked opponent, as USF has, and is 1-18 against teams from the six BCS automatic-qualifier conferences, the win coming in 2007 against Minnesota.
"South Florida was always our template," athletic director Craig Angelos said Tuesday. "They were about five years ahead of us and grew very quickly and did it the right way. … In following that model, we've made some dramatic strikes ourselves, progressing on our own particular path."
The Owls nearly closed the gap between the programs in 2007, when they gave the Bulls a scare in Lockhart Stadium, trailing by five in the closing minutes before USF escaped with a 35-23 victory.
FAU has another counterpart against which to measure its progress: Florida International, which launched its program in 2002, a year after the Owls, and made the same jump to I-A and the Sun Belt in 2005. In nearly every metric, FAU is ahead of its Miami neighbor. The Owls have won seven of eight meetings in the "Shula Bowl" rivalry and have had better records in each of the past four years.
In that time frame, FAU is 26-27, and FIU is 9-42. In attendance, FAU outdrew FIU by 50 percent last season, averaging 15,326 to the Panthers' announced average of 10,204.
"One thing we're working on that (USF) seems to have solved … they have a tremendous fan base," Angelos said. "Over on the east coast, Miami, FIU, FAU and all the pro sports teams continue to struggle with how to attract fans day in and day out. It's something we're struggling with a little bit."
That next step is a 30,000-seat on-campus stadium, due to be constructed in time for at least part of the 2011 season at a cost of more than $70 million.
"It has been the missing link for several years," Schnellenberger said. "When that happens, then we can start hoping to make better, faster upward movement."
Groundbreaking is scheduled for Oct. 15, and Angelos said FAU has talked with USF about playing in the first game in the new stadium (the Bulls were the opponent when FIU opened its expanded stadium in 2008). But he said he doesn't know that construction will be completed in time for the Sept. 17 opening on USF's 2011 schedule.
"We want to open (the stadium) when it's 100 percent done," Angelos said. "It's possible it won't be until the first or second week of October. I'm not optimistic it's going to work out with USF now."
Angelos believes the distance between Boca Raton and the rest of the state's programs is getting less with each game and each season.
"Whether you're trying to catch up with Florida and Florida State or on the brink of just trying to get on par with USF and UCF or competing with FIU, I think the gap is closing dramatically around the state," Angelos said. "I think we're gaining."