TAMPA — USF quarterback Byrum Brown got his introduction to the “War on I-4″ early in his Bulls tenure.
It was during the offseason, when one of the coaches introduced offensive lineman Mike Lofton. Instead of saying Lofton transferred from UCF, Lofton came from “the team up the street.”
“I knew it had to be a big rivalry if he wasn’t even mentioning the name,” Brown said.
USF linebacker Dwayne Boyles put it even more succinctly.
“It’s hate week.”
The last one for a while.
With the No. 25 Knights headed for the Big 12 this summer, the “War on I-4″ will have to move from a conference matchup to a non-conference game. Though both schools have been open to continuing the series, their non-conference schedules are booked years in advance; USF’s plate looks full through 2027. That means the next meeting is probably, at best, six years away.
“We’ve got a chance, and it’s not going to happen for a while,” USF interim coach Daniel Da Prato said. “The young kids on our roster, this will be their one shot unless something changes dramatically.”
That’s unfortunate — for the players, coaches, and fans along the I-4 corridor. Rivalries like this are what separate college football from the NFL and everything else. Maybe meetings between USF and Florida Atlantic will become fierce when they become annual AAC opponents next year, but the Owls don’t have the large local presence UCF does. Maybe UCF can have great games against Texas Tech or Kansas State, but it’s hard to envision Knights fans bragging to coworkers about it all year long.
Da Prato said he doesn’t like the fact that the series is ending, even temporarily, but the decision is several notches above his pay grade. Boyles doesn’t like it, either.
“It’s a unique rivalry,” Boyles said. “We don’t have another team like UCF.”
The USF-UCF series has been through this before. The 2008 meeting was billed as the last for a long time — maybe forever — as the Bulls pursued games with other, bigger in-state opponents. The rivalry wasn’t much of one, anyway, at least not on the field. The St. Petersburg Times compared it to the rivalry between a windshield and a bug, or a hammer and nail.
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There was, however, some tension between the programs. Both teams were flagged for early personal fouls. The Bulls took a golden shovel onto the Knights’ homefield (presumably to bury them) after a 31-24 win improved USF to a 4-0 in the series.
“Good for you,” Tim Stephens wrote in the Orlando Sentinel afterward. “Here’s a cookie. Now choke on it.”
The series has ebbed and flowed since: two wins for UCF, two for USF and the Knights’ current five-game winning streak that began with the top-25 thriller in 2017. And that leaves USF in an unenviable position. No player in the locker room has ever hoisted the highway sign trophy.
“We’re kind of playing for two trophies,” Da Prato said. “One for us to keep here in Tampa and then one for us to keep them having the opportunity to play for.”
That second trophy is the AAC championship. UCF lost its chance at hosting the conference title game with last week’s loss to Navy, but a win over the Bulls will still send the Knights to the championship against the winner of Friday’s top-25 showdown between Tulane and Cincinnati. Win that, and UCF will almost certainly be headed back to a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game (the Cotton Bowl).
Though some coaches prefer to treat a rivalry like any other game, USF hasn’t been afraid to hype up the stakes. Not with a trophy at stake.
“Let’s go get it,” Da Prato said, “and let’s keep it here for a while.”
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