Sunday, April 22, 2018
Colleges

USF, UCF finally resume rivalry

TAMPA — The local weather pattern — muggy one morning, glacial the next — is schizophrenic. For that matter, so are gas prices. In a two-week span, Greg Schiano has evolved from Perkins to Parcells.

At this rate, the next race at Tampa Bay Downs will be contested atop unicorns. Yet even as our region's own little world order gets turned on its head, normalcy finally has returned to one nook of the area.

USF and UCF resume their rivalry. Two programs separated by 97 miles no longer are separated by the politics of college football.

"This is why you play college football," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said.

"I think it's great for the central Florida area," Knights coach George O'Leary agreed.

The first meeting since Sept. 6, 2008, occurs tonight before an ESPN audience at Orlando's Bright House Networks Stadium. In their last encounter, a 31-24 Bulls overtime win, USF was No. 17 and the Knights unranked.

Tonight, UCF (9-1, 6-0 American Athletic Conference) is No. 17 and USF (2-8, 2-4) is struggling. But that's hardly the only difference.

This time, the stakes transcend the programs' proximity.

"It's like a new era of the rivalry," Bulls junior defensive tackle Todd Chandler said.

The dialogue of the past, most of it whispered, is well-known. In a previous life, USF was a burgeoning Big East program making a splash nationally. An annual game against the Knights, then in Conference USA, provided no benefit other than an attractive gate.

In terms of national profile, the Bulls had nothing to gain. After defeating UCF in 2005 and '06, USF agreed to one more home-and-home series as part of its exit requirements from C-USA.

USF won both games. The next season, it hosted Miami for the first time. Since 2008, it also has hosted Florida State, Florida Atlantic and Florida A&M.

But not UCF despite pressure that occasionally even reached the state legislature.

"Because of the situation … you could see why they didn't do it as much," Taggart said.

Now the programs are neighbors in the fledgling American, and one could argue the Bulls need this series more than the Knights, who can clinch a share of the league crown with a win.

With an average actual attendance of 20,378 for seven home games this year, the Bulls need the gate a biennual home matchup against UCF will bring to Raymond James Stadium. The last one in Tampa, in 2007, drew 65,948.

For the short term, they need an upset of a ranked foe to regain a modicum of swagger. They need it for recruiting. They need a natural nemesis on their conference slate, the way Florida needs Georgia or Duke needs North Carolina.

"It's a lot more important not just again for bragging rights. It's a meaningful game now," said Taggart, who has tried indoctrinating his team into the rivalry by showing video of Bulls-Knights contests.

"This is why you play college football. How could you not get fired up for a game like this? You've just got to. Under the lights, Black Friday. You've got to be fired up for this."

At last, rivalry week has been restored in Tampa. So has the world order.

"I think it's great for both teams as far as their attendance at stadiums and just the overall rivalry as far as getting things done," O'Leary said.

"I've always been a big pusher of playing each and every year, and now I don't have to worry about pushing it."

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