TAMPA — Before this season, the mere chance to line up against one of the state's three traditional powers was a rare and anticipated event for USF.
And if beating Florida State in Tallahassee in September was the biggest win in USF history, as coach Jim Leavitt said it was, imagine the significance if the Bulls can pull off a home win today against No. 19 Miami.
"I'd be a fool to say it wouldn't have a tremendous impact," said USF defensive line coach Kevin Patrick, an All-America defensive end at Miami while playing from 1989-93. "It gives you some state rights, which in turn, I've always felt, gives you some national rights as well. This game is very important for us."
The Bulls (7-3) have had one previous shot at the Hurricanes (8-3), losing 27-7 in the Orange Bowl in 2005. Only one current USF player, senior receiver Jessie Hester, played in that game, but all can appreciate the progress the Bulls have made. USF had never been ranked at that point, and had played its first Big East game only a week earlier.
"The last two or three years, (USF) ranked second in the country at one point, and that gives you a lot of confidence in what you're trying to do," Miami coach Randy Shannon said. "That's the one thing that has us looking at them. We have to have the mentality that this team has done a great job of getting better each week and each year, and we've stressed to our guys that this is going to be a tough one."
Miami has been vulnerable on the road, losing 31-7 at Virginia Tech and 33-24 at North Carolina. Much will hinge on sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris, who has thrown 21 touchdown passes but also has 17 interceptions. USF answers with its own young, promising quarterback, redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels, who has a similar touchdown-to-interception ratio (11 to eight) but also has six rushing touchdowns to go with a team-best 671 rushing yards.
USF has made a recruiting push into Miami's back yard, with 14 players from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Those Bulls grew up as fans of the "U," with the Hurricanes being a dominant program with five national championships, but their victory at Florida State has helped them feel like confident peers to Miami.
"The U is all that I knew growing up," said Bulls senior linebacker Kion Wilson, who grew up in Miami admiring 'Canes linebackers Ray Lewis and Jonathan Vilma. "I wouldn't consider them (now) the powerhouses they were when I was growing up in my childhood days. But I still feel they're a fairly good team. They have great athletes, and they're on the path to becoming what they were."
A win against Miami would help the Bulls' perception in the state's football hierarchy, and it could reap huge benefits in recruiting. The Bulls started seeing progress on that front in February, beating Florida for defensive end Ryne Giddins and beating Miami for linebacker Sam Barrington and cornerback Kayvon Webster.
"It's a significant event for us to be able to begin competing against the other BCS schools in the state," running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Carl Franks said. "(A win against Miami) establishes more relevance for us in the football world that is Florida, recruiting in Florida, and in the national picture. It would be a very significant win for our program."
Moments after the Bulls beat FSU, defensive end George Selvie agreed with Leavitt that USF had just earned the biggest win in its history. But Selvie made one exception to that assessment.
"It's Florida State, so it's got to rank No. 1," Selvie said that day. "It might move to No. 2 when we play Miami. We'll see."