TAMPA — Not to discount the past month of football, or to trivialize the five wins that have vaulted USF to No. 10 in the national polls, but Matt Grothe isn't counting them toward the Bulls' record.
"We're 0-0 now," the Bulls quarterback said. "Basically, the first five games were preseason. It's great to be 5-0, but at the same time, if we don't win this one, it's not a good start in the Big East."
Tonight, with a national TV audience on ESPN, starts the real deal for the Bulls, who open their fourth season of Big East play with a new perspective — as the team to beat, easily the highest-ranked team in a league seen by most as ripe for the taking.
You won't hear that from USF, whose players remember last year's 6-0 start and its ensuing three-game losing streak. Unless you're playing baseball, no team wants to peak in October.
"There's a different buzz in the meeting room," defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said. "They understand we need to step our game up even more. … It's obviously a big game, so we'll see what happens."
The Bulls are in their fourth week as the Big East's highest-ranked team — an honor they only carried for three weeks last season, when they rose to No. 2 then dropped three straight, starting with a Thursday night loss to unranked Rutgers.
"It's a whole different mentality certainly as you go into the conference games," coach Jim Leavitt said.
The Bulls face a Pittsburgh team that has won three straight since an opening loss to Bowling Green. It's a huge opportunity for the Panthers, who despite a 5-7 record last year were ranked in the preseason and seen by many as a challenger for the league crown.
Pittsburgh is led by running back LeSean McCoy, who broke Tony Dorsett's school freshman rushing record last season, but was largely contained by the Bulls in November. McCoy, held to 55 yards last season, is the first elite back to challenge a Bulls defense that ranks fourth nationally in rush defense.
"I'm excited for this game. It's going to be bloody your nose and get after it," said USF linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, who had 18 tackles in last year's Pittsburgh game, tying a school record.
The Bulls say they won't know until just before kickoff whether that defense will have two key starters in defensive end George Selvie and tackle Terrell McClain, both of whom sat out last week's win at North Carolina State with ankle injuries. And safety Carlton Williams has watched the end of the past two games with a painful hip injury. But after tonight the Bulls have 16 days of recuperation before they face Syracuse on Oct. 18.
After playing primarily in a nickel defense, USF will likely rely on a basic 4-3. Junior Chris Robinson, who has played primarily at defensive end the past two seasons, will get his first career start at strongside linebacker.
It's the third year in a row USF plays its Big East opener on a weeknight, and the Bulls know the joy — and disappointment — of such a national stage. Two years ago, they lost to Rutgers 22-20 on a Friday on ESPN; last year, the program's first home sellout came for a 21-13 win against then-No. 5 West Virginia on another Friday night.
Grothe likes looking up and seeing ESPN's "Sky Cam" hovering on wires over the field, a reminder of the audience he's playing to. He doesn't have to reach far back in his memory for reminders of how many people can tune in for a huge upset.
"I know most of the guys on the team were watching the USC-Oregon State game (last week)," Grothe said. "I'm sure there were plenty of other people in the world watching it, and that's going to be us this week. Hopefully we won't have the same outcome (then-No. 1 USC) did."
Greg Auman is at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.sptimes.com/usf/.