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A class by themselves

The 14 South Florida seniors who will play their final regular-season game Saturday at Houston have had as big an impact at USF as any crop of seniors has had on any football program.

Any program, ever.

It is a ridiculously encompassing statement, and it would take weeks poring over microfiche and the Internet to prove it, but consider this: Where was USF when these guys arrived (just out of the womb), and where is USF now (bowl crashing)? It is improbable another program has taken such a quantum leap.

"That's why I came here, to put USF on the map," senior defensive tackle Greg Walls said.

The Bulls, 8-2 going into the season finale, are 16-5 in two Division I-A seasons, getting votes in the national polls and ranked No. 28 in the BCS.

For Walls and the seniors, it's Mission Accomplished.

"We have come a long way when you think about it," senior defensive end Chris Daley said.

Let's think about it. In 1999, when most of the 14 were playing their freshman seasons, USF was in its third season of existence. The program was scarcely a program when most took the plunge into the unknown and signed on.

Now, the Bulls have stubbornly jackhammered their way into the bowl picture despite NCAA rules and nonfootball-related factors aligned against them.

The seniors came to USF for various reasons, but all have a common thread: They believed coach Jim Leavitt and his staff when they said USF was on the way up, quickly.

"That's what (assistant coach Earl) Lane told me when they were recruiting me," said Walls, a Sarasota native who had several major Division I scholarship offers. "I believed him. I was convinced because they were recruiting kids out of Florida, where the best players come from.

"Once they got us all in working together, I never doubted my decision. Everybody sticks together like one big family."

In 1999, the Bulls were playing Division I-AA schools like Liberty, Illinois State and New Hampshire. They had losses to Hofstra, Troy State and James Madison. They finished 7-4, a great season for a third-year program.

In 2002, USF has lined up against I-A schools such as Northern Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Southern Miss and Bowling Green (combined record, 38-13). The schedule is immeasurably better than 1999, yet USF, somehow, has improved more than the schedule: The Bulls will have a better record in 2002 than 1999.

The progress has been preposterous. Yet to a man, none of the seniors is amazed.

"The team has come a long way, but I wouldn't say I'm surprised," senior defensive tackle Tavares Jurineack said. "Our success here is due to the work ethic. We don't have any tricks in the bag. We've just worked hard."

The Bulls are 25-1 at home the past four seasons with 19 straight wins, second-best behind Miami. USF has won 14 of its past 16 overall, tied for the second-best record in the nation in that span (again behind Miami).

Every challenge these seniors have met. After every setback, they've hunkered down and catapulted forward.

"It's the dedication," Daley said. "The athletic director got a dedicated coach, Coach Leavitt got dedicated coaches, and they got dedicated players.

"A lot of guys had dreams of going big time, to Florida State or Michigan. But somebody told me I could come here and make history. I saw a rise coming. I knew we'd be pretty good."

How do you think Michigan or Florida State might fare if it came to Raymond James Stadium next week? The question would have met a guffaw in 1999.

The sad part for the seniors is they didn't get play in Conference USA. USF and TCU would have been the league's top teams this season. The Bulls are 3-0 against C-USA teams. They might have won the conference title.

Yet there are few regrets when you've accomplished so much, and when you've set the gold standard for developing a football program from scratch.

"It's been the players and coaches who have done it together," Walls said. "The players believe what the coaches are teaching. We all love each other. It's one big happy family."

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