TAMPA — This time, no one was talking about the game as a reflection of a program's place in the state. The players did not draw comparisons, and the fans did not boast of days to come. The coach did not call it historic, nor did he pause to brush tears from his eyes.
This time, it was not about how far USF had come. Rather, it was how far USF still has to go.
Two months ago, the Bulls were celebrating a victory against Florida State and reveling in the idea they could be in the same conversation as the state's traditional powers. Yet, if they want to be realistic about their growth, they would be better off focusing on Saturday's 31-10 loss to Miami.
The game was not remotely close. Three of Miami's first four drives lasted 10 plays or more, and the other was a three-play touchdown drive. For the rest of the afternoon, the Hurricanes seemed to perk up whenever necessary between sideline snacks and conversations.
"I don't know there are many people, before the year started, who would have said, 'Hey they're going to beat Florida State and Miami both,' " USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "We got one. It shows where we've got to go. It shows that we're not there, certainly. It shows that we've got a shot."
And so perhaps the time has come for the Bulls to decide how they wish to be measured. If they still want to be thought of as the upstart program that has traveled faster and further than anyone could have imagined, that's fine. You can say 2009 has been another nice little season. In that sense, they are not that different from UCF. But if the Bulls want to be considered a legitimate player on the national scene, then no one in the program should be defending the results of this season. Or last season, for that matter.
Here's the reality: As we head to December, USF is 1-4 against BCS teams that currently sport winning records. Last year it was 2-4 against BCS teams that finished with winning records.
Don't get me wrong. There's no shame in fattening your record against lesser programs. Good teams win the games they're supposed to win, and so USF deserves credit for beating Syracuse, Western Kentucky, UCF and Florida International the past 15 months.
But it's consistency the Bulls lack. They need more than the occasional upset of a West Virginia or a Kansas if the program is to grow. You can't lose four in a row to Cincinnati and Rutgers, and still pretend to be a Big East contender. You can't go 9-0 in August and September, and then limp through October and November at 5-9, as USF has done the past two seasons. You can't go 12-9 against I-A programs and seriously talk about a spot in the polls.
And you can't beat FSU in the middle of its worst season in 30 years and look at yourself as being on par with other state teams.
"We have to make that move," Leavitt said. "I'm the one who pushed really hard to get Miami on the schedule … I'm really glad now, more than ever, because it shows where we've got to go.
"We're not there. Is that the worst thing in the world, to say we're not there? No, I don't think so. We've got work to do. We've beaten one of the two traditional powers in the state. Not as good as I want; I want to beat them both. But it's probably not awful."
No, it's not awful. It's better than almost anyone would have expected a few years ago. But there is a price to be paid when you talk loudly and dream grandly. If you want to think of yourself as a big-time program, you can't hide behind inexperience or injuries or lack of depth when the results turn sour.
In other words, you don't get to bounce between weight classes when it suits your purpose. Either you want to be judged against the big boys, or you do not. And USF has been whipped by Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Miami in recent weeks.
Now, those are pretty good programs. And a lot of teams would have struggled against that schedule. But USF aspires to be better. And losing those games by an average score of 34-10 means it has more ground to make up than it'd like to admit. Nothing is wrong with aiming high. That's what got USF where it is so quickly. But the Bulls can't be content at this point. They've never asked to be graded on a curve, and they shouldn't start now.
This season, like the last one, has turned disappointing. Admit it. Learn from it. And be a better team next year because of it.