NEWPORT, R.I. — Commissioner Mike Aresco has touted the renewed USF-UCF rivalry as one of the great new things to come with the American Athletic Conference, and as the league hosted its annual football media day, the two head coaches traded barbs in what will only build up leading to the Bulls and Knights meeting Nov. 29 in Orlando.
UCF coach George O'Leary, asked Tuesday about how he has gotten to know USF coach Willie Taggart, started the fun by challenging USF's ambitious recruiting goals, which include keeping a presence in his back yard.
"I was laughing. He got there and he said he's going to own the I-4 corridor," O'Leary said. "I said to him, 'Obviously, you've got to go back and look at your geography.' "
Taggart, smiling later in response, said he knew what he was saying when he said it, and his goal hasn't changed.
"We're doing a pretty good job at it, too," said Taggart, who has six of his 12 commitments for 2014 from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. "We're doing what we said we were going to do when we came here. I'm a football coach. I'm not into geography and all that."
The teams are close rivals on more than just a state map — UCF was fourth in the league's preseason media poll, one spot ahead of the Bulls. Taggart said he likes facing UCF every year as a conference rival.
"I think it's good for the state when you have something like that, good for both universities, to go out and compete against someone you don't like too well," he said. "It's always good to compete and have rivalries. I think that's what college football is all about."
USF beat UCF four years in a row from 2005-08, but hasn't played UCF since, replacing the Knights on the schedule with nonconference opponents such as Western Kentucky and Ball State. O'Leary has publicly lobbied for the series to be renewed for some time. Asked on Tuesday if his fans were excited for the renewal, O'Leary joked, "Excited? They drive me nuts."
O'Leary sees tangible benefits to the rivalry, which should result in strong attendance wherever the game site. USF sold out the last UCF game in Tampa in 2007, an announced 65,948. The 2008 game in Orlando drew 46,805, UCF's second-highest total at Bright House Networks Stadium.
"That, to me, is a natural rival," O'Leary said. "It's an I-4 game. It's a win-win. Thanksgiving weekend's a tough weekend to draw, I don't care who you are, unless you're playing in a rival game. Georgia-Georgia Tech, Alabama-Auburn. It used to be Texas-Texas A&M, I don't know if it still is or not. That's going to be a win-win from a stadium, economy, everything concerned."
The recruiting battles will continue all year — UCF signed five players from the Tampa Bay area in February, and O'Leary has picked up two commitments in those counties for 2014. Taggart said USF's relative youth, playing in its 17th season of college football, makes it hard to build strong traditional rivals, but having the Knights on the schedule every year could do just that.
"We're a young program. We couldn't have much of a rivalry," he said. "I know we played UCF before. I look forward to it. It's great for our conference and great for our state."