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USF football: Should Bulls vs. FAU Owls become a rivalry? Can it?

With the War on I-4 over, the Bulls could use an annual rivalry. The conference made the Owls a possibility.
 
The USF football team has played Florida Atlantic four previous times. Can the Bulls and Owls become rivals in the American Athletic Conference?
The USF football team has played Florida Atlantic four previous times. Can the Bulls and Owls become rivals in the American Athletic Conference? [ Times (2013) ]
Published Oct. 12, 2023|Updated Oct. 13, 2023

TAMPA — USF coach Alex Golesh doesn’t give a hoot about whether Florida Atlantic is, should be or will be the Bulls’ newest rival.

“I think it’d probably fall under the category of something that’s probably for someone else to care about,” Golesh said.

Somebody like American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco.

Because his league is diverse and only a decade old, it lacks longstanding rivalries like Florida-Georgia or Florida State-Miami. Aresco wants to create them wherever he can. With the USF-UCF War on I-4 on hiatus after the Knights’ move to the Big 12, a rivalry between two other large, Florida public schools is a natural possibility.

“You can’t artificially create or manufacture a rivalry,” Aresco said. “But you try to provide the conditions where those rivalries develop.”

Though every rivalry is different, most need three conditions to develop: opportunity, competitiveness and an inciting factor. As the Owls and Bulls prepare to meet Saturday for the first time as conference foes, can this become the state’s next rivalry?

Opportunity

The Florida-Tennessee series became a major rivalry after the Gators and Volunteers were put in the same division in 1992.
The Florida-Tennessee series became a major rivalry after the Gators and Volunteers were put in the same division in 1992. [ SCOTT AUDETTE | AP (1997) ]

Established rivalries can survive breaks — the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia has — but it’s hard to establish one without regular, if not annual, games.

From 1916-91, Florida and Tennessee played only 21 times. When the SEC split into divisions the next year, the Gators and Volunteers met every year as East opponents.

Thanks to that opportunity, the rivalry bloomed because the stakes mounted. Their first 10 divisional meetings were all top-15 matchups that often determined who won the East (and the SEC).

“Florida-Tennessee was a big deal at that point in time,” Gators coach Billy Napier said last month.

Though its magnitude has diminished — we’ll come back to that — it needed regular games to become a big deal in the first place.

The American understands this point. When realignment forced it to change its scheduling model, USF-FAU became one of six annual games. The other five were either in-state matchups or between nearby teams.

“We think because they’re both Florida schools, they have a lot in common, that would be potentially a good rivalry,” Aresco said, “and so we’d like them to play obviously as often as we can.”

Competitive games

USF dominated the UCF series' first four games.
USF dominated the UCF series' first four games. [ BRIAN CASSELLA | Times files ]
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Longtime Gators writer Pat Dooley no longer considers Florida-Tennessee bigger than Florida-LSU. Why? Because the Gators have won 17 of the last 19 matchups with the Vols.

“You’ve got to have both sides winning some of these games,” said Dooley, who hosts the “Another Dooley Noted Podcast.”

USF fans know this, too. As the USF-UCF series ended the first time in 2008, the St. Petersburg Times compared the rivalry between that of a hammer and nail. It was true; the Bulls won the first four games by a combined 150-67. When the series resumed in 2013, the Knights won the first two games, allowing the rivalry to pick up.

The War on I-4 became more competitive after the series resumed in 2013.
The War on I-4 became more competitive after the series resumed in 2013. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2022) ]

It helps if the games have meaningful stakes. FSU-Clemson ramped up about a decade ago as their matchups decided the ACC’s Atlantic Division and shaped the national title race.

Saturday’s game doesn’t have that kind of hype. But after the first four Florida Atlantic-USF games were all decided by at least 12 points, this one should be closer; the Bulls enter as 2½-point favorites.

A spark

The Florida-LSU rivalry exploded around the 2016 Hurricane Matthew game.
The Florida-LSU rivalry exploded around the 2016 Hurricane Matthew game. [ GERALD HERBERT | AP (2016) ]

A rivalry doesn’t become a rivalry until something happens to make it one. It can’t be forced, like the trophy UConn created for its so-called Civil ConFLiCT with UCF. It has to be authentic.

“There’s got to be some sort of bad blood,” said Kris Bartels, a former Owls defensive back and current radio analyst.

For Bartels, the Shula Bowl between Florida Atlantic and Florida International took off under Owls coach Charlie Partridge. He brought the trophy out to practice in 2014 as motivation. When his Owls won it back the next year, the Florida International helmet was knocked (or torn) off the trophy. The Panthers took it a step farther the next year by ripping off the Owls’ helmet, lifting it toward the crowd and using it as an ashtray for victory cigars.

Tension had simmered for years between Florida and LSU, like Tigers coaches calling Steve Spurrier “Shiny Pants” because of his wardrobe choices with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits or LSU fans bombarding Tim Tebow’s phone a decade later (prompting him to dial a pretend phone as a touchdown celebration).

The animosity spiked in 2016 when the game was postponed as Hurricane Matthew approached. The Tigers accused Florida of ducking them, then demanded a rescheduled game be moved to Death Valley. Dooley had never seen so much hatred; it was worse than Florida-Georgia.

“It’s almost like when those kinds of things happen,” Dooley said, “it changes the way you look at the opponent.”

Florida Atlantic and Florida International will resume their Shula Bowl rivalry next year as a non-conference series.
Florida Atlantic and Florida International will resume their Shula Bowl rivalry next year as a non-conference series. [ KATHY HITCHCOCK | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

For now, the Bulls and Owls look at each other differently. Bartels said Florida Atlantic fans are “definitely looking at it as a rivalry.” Even asking whether the teams could be rivals drew derision from USF fans.

The Bulls acknowledged personal ties between the programs — two USF assistants came from Florida Atlantic, and many players know each other — but stopped there. It’s a far cry from how the Bulls called the buildup to last year’s UCF game “hate week.”

Owls coach Tom Herman talked up USF for being “very, very tradition-rich” with better facilities and more resources.

“I don’t know why little brother would ever take big brother lightly …” Herman said in his Monday news conference. “We’re going to go in with duct tape and bubble gum and try to figure out a way to compete against them.”

And, perhaps, lay the foundation of a rivalry in the process.

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