It started, annoyingly enough, with a billboard.
Before USF and Rutgers had ever met on a football field, before the Bulls had even formally joined the Big East, sparks flew between the programs. In 2004, Rutgers saw fit to put up a billboard on I-4 in Tampa featuring the 27 Scarlet Knights recruited from Florida.
"Season's Greetings from Rutgers Football," it read.
Five years later, the Scarlet Knights don't have a single player who graduated from a bay area high school. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a Big East rival that gets under the skin of Bulls fans the way Rutgers can.
"That's easy to see," said ESPN analyst Craig James, part of the broadcast crew for tonight's USF-Rutgers game from New Jersey. "Sometimes, there's a program you just can't deal with. When you talk to USF's coaches, you get a sense of something. I wouldn't call it an animosity, but you get that, 'I want to beat their fannies.' "
Rutgers, of course, has beaten USF's fannies three years in a row, including two of its most painful losses during that span. Ask Bulls fans about Thursday nights and Rutgers, they'll wince and tell you about 2007, when USF was 6-0 and No. 2 in the nation.
The Bulls were the talk of college football — that is until Rutgers eked out a 30-27 upset on ESPN, their fans rushing the field in celebration.
USF coach Jim Leavitt is known for his sideline intensity. But if ESPN needs a montage of the coach at his absolute, deep-end, headphones-throwing angriest, they'll use the second half of that game.
Then last year, Rutgers handed USF a 49-16 drubbing in Tampa, the most points allowed at home by USF and its most lopsided Big East conference loss.
"I don't like them that much," junior receiver Dontavia Bogan said on GoUSFbulls.com this week. "We were No. 2 in the country, and we lost. And this past year, we got killed by them. We haven't beaten them since I've been here. This is a big game for me and all the other players."
If Rutgers, which won 22-20 in Tampa in 2006, is USF's Big East nemesis, then coach Greg Schiano is the league's most despised coach among Bulls fans; at least since Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan two years ago.
Players have filled the opposing team's bulletin boards plenty, but the soap opera drama isn't limited to the football field. In January, Florida International backed out of a game at USF scheduled for October, paying a $200,000 buy-out and signing a deal to play Rutgers instead.
"It's disappointing," Leavitt said tactfully in February, "that a conference school would do that. … I don't think that's the way things should go in a conference."
Because FIU pulled out so late, USF had to replace it with a second I-AA opponent, Charleston Southern.
Only one win against a I-AA team can count toward bowl eligibility. It's why USF, while 6-2, needs another win to be eligible — Rutgers is in the same boat — so it's somewhat poetic that USF can beat Rutgers to rectify the problem.
USF doesn't need any more logs on its motivational fire, but there's no shortage of reasons for it to be emotionally ready tonight. Leavitt has pointed to last year's game throughout the past year as inspiration.
"We basically were embarrassed," linebacker Kion Wilson said. "Hopefully, we can come out with a lot of aggression, a lot of anger built up, and … let that display our will to want to win."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com.