TAMPA —- USF's football team knows all too well how quickly and sharply momentum can change directions.
Three years in a row, the Bulls jumped out to strong starts, winning at least their first five games and moving up the national polls, but then a single loss steamrolled into a midseason swoon.
In 2007, the Bulls opened 6-0, rising to No. 2 in the polls, only to lose three in a row to drop out of the Top 25.
In 2008, the Bulls opened 5-0, rising to No. 10, but fell even harder, losing four of their next five games, starting with a loss at Pittsburgh.
This season, USF again opened 5-0, moving to No. 21, but took its first loss Thursday to then-No. 8 Cincinnati. The Bulls' challenge is finding the brakes and stopping the skid at one loss as they play at No. 20 Pittsburgh on Saturday.
"You've got to have a short memory," coach Jim Leavitt said after Thursday's loss. "When you win, you want to have a short memory and move on to the next game. And when you lose, you've got to be able to do the same."
USF (5-1, 1-1 in Big East) is in the most difficult stretch of its schedule, approaching the second of three straight games against ranked opponents, with No. 23 West Virginia on Oct. 30, then a trip Nov. 12 to Rutgers, which has beaten the Bulls three years in a row.
"Whenever I lose, I don't like it. Whether we're 0-5 and lose, or whether we're 5-0 and lose, it doesn't really change it for me," Leavitt said.
His players, driven to win the school's first Big East championship, know another loss probably takes them out of contention. They can take solace in knowing that the league champ has lost at least one conference game in each of the past three seasons, including two losses in 2007.
"Cincinnati lost last year in the Big East, and they won the Big East," said senior defensive end George Selvie, who had two sacks against the Bearcats.
Pittsburgh (6-1, 3-0) has the nation's No. 3 rusher in freshman Dion Lewis (918 yards, nine touchdowns) and has seen much improved play from senior quarterback Bill Stull, who has thrown for 14 touchdowns with three interceptions and ranks seventh nationally in pass efficiency.
Saturday will also be a difficult test for redshirt freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels, who has never played in cold weather (Saturday's high in Pittsburgh is 55 degrees) and will face a defensive line that Leavitt said is the best the Bulls have faced this season. Daniels said his team's experiences in the past two seasons should help it avoid the same slump.
"We've been there before. We just need to bounce back from this," Daniels said. "Move on. That's all we can do."
Leavitt has said the overall youth of this team should allow the Bulls to weather injuries better with more depth and makes for more natural improvement throughout the season. Moving forward, the Bulls say, is their only option.
"You don't have a choice," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "You have to look at film, evaluate it, bury it after 24 hours and get ready for Pitt. We still have a long season ahead of us. We have to get better."