ST. PETERSBURG — Jim Leavitt looked out from the Pier during a news conference Tuesday afternoon, enjoying the warm weather and remembering how as a child he'd watched fireworks there each July 4 in lawn chairs with his family.
Part of Leavitt's excitement for playing in the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl against Memphis on Dec. 20 is nostalgia — returning to the city he grew up in, against an old Conference USA rival.
Few of his players have that history with St. Petersburg, however, and none playing next week lined up against Memphis the last time the teams met in 2004.
So one of the biggest challenges facing Leavitt is matching the motivation that Memphis will have: A chance to upset a BCS opponent and to show the Bulls aren't better than the league they left behind.
"To have a chance to compete against a BCS (team), one of the three that left our league and went to the Big East, I'm not going to act like it's not important, because I think it is," Memphis coach Tommy West said. "When you're not in the BCS, it's a big deal. That's where we want to be."
After last year's 56-21 loss in the Sun Bowl, Leavitt admitted that Oregon benefited from being tagged as underdog leading up to the bowl, while USF lacked that motivation.
Now, as the Bulls open as nearly two-touchdown favorites against Memphis in what is essentially a home game, USF will have to guard against a similar disadvantage.
"We don't mind playing that role," West said. "We'll be the underdog, and it'll be a great challenge for us."
Memphis hasn't beaten a BCS conference team since its 2004 opener against Mississippi. The Tigers are 0-7 since, but five of those losses have been by a touchdown or less, making them a dangerous opponent.
USF, along the same lines, has won its past 12 games against non-BCS teams, a streak that goes back to 2004 and a loss at home … to Memphis.
ANOTHER TRANSFER?: As the basketball team prepares for two key transfers to join the roster, coach Stan Heath is busy courting another impact transfer for next season.
The Bulls are one of four schools in the mix for Jamie Skeen, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound power forward who is transferring after two seasons at Wake Forest. Skeen, who is also considering Seton Hall, Marquette and Virginia Commonwealth, is scheduled to visit USF's campus this weekend. Heath was in North Carolina on Monday night and met with Skeen, who visited Seton Hall over the weekend and is visiting VCU today.
Heath has firsthand knowledge of Skeen's abilities — as a sophomore, Skeen had 17 points, seven rebounds and three blocks off the bench in Wake Forest's 74-61 win against the Bulls in Winston-Salem.
Skeen, who chose the Demon Deacons over North Carolina and Florida two years ago, was suspended from school this fall for a violation of university academic policy. Skeen, whose father, Eric, played football at Florida State, would bring a tough, physical presence to USF's frontcourt, which has struggled with depth issues in a 3-3 start.
JUST RUN: The St. Petersburg Bowl is an inexpensive ticket at $30, but fans can get in for even less with a little exercise.
The St. Petersburg Bowl Fan 5K is set for 8 a.m. on game day, starting at Tropicana Field, running to Bayshore Drive and back. Registration is $20, and the first 1,500 runners to finish get a ticket to the bowl game, with proceeds benefitting area charities.
See spbowlfan5k.com for information.
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.