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Ten years ago, USF sat atop college football, almost

In this Oct. 18, 2007 file photo, USF football coach Jim Leavitt talks to his team in the second quarter of USF's 30-27 loss at Rutgers. The loss toppled USF from the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings -- a lofty college football perch USF has not approached since. 

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

In this Oct. 18, 2007 file photo, USF football coach Jim Leavitt talks to his team in the second quarter of USF's 30-27 loss at Rutgers. The loss toppled USF from the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings -- a lofty college football perch USF has not approached since. BRIAN CASSELLA | Times
Published Oct. 13, 2017

It is USF's version of Halley's Comet.

Only it's never coming back around.

Ten years ago Saturday, the USF football team, coached by Jim Leavitt, was ranked No. 2 in the first Bowl Championship Series rankings of the 2007 season.

Really. It happened.

It will never happen again.

That Sunday in 2007, the Bulls were the talk of college football.

The talk didn't last a week. More like 100 hours or so. The following Thursday, USF lost at Rutgers, 30-27, with Leavitt soundly outcoached by Rutgers coach ... Greg Schiano.

USF lost its next two games after Rutgers. The Bulls were annihilated in the Sun Bowl by Oregon, 56-21. They finished the season unranked.

This USF is 5-0 and had climbed to No. 18 under coach Charlie Strong. There is no chance that even an undefeated USF could make the College Football Playoff. Group of Five schools will always be on the outside looking in.

But once upon a time, a prepubescent USF football program, in just its 11th year, was in the mix at 6-0, ranked just behind Ohio State in the first BCS rankings.

Of course, none of us really believed USF was the second-best team in the country. Not for a second. But make no mistake: The Bulls had the second-best resume at the time.

They had beaten No. 17 Auburn in overtime at Auburn. They beat No. 5 West Virginia on a Friday night before a packed Raymond James Stadium — yes, packed — and an ESPN national audience.

USF climbed to No. 6 after the West Virginia win, then to No. 5 before trouncing I-4 rival UCF in Tampa, 64-12.

That same day, Oct. 13, top-ranked LSU lost. So did No. 2 California. The next day, the first BCS rankings were unveiled.

And there was USF, just behind Ohio State, ahead of Boston College.

If the Bulls had kept winning, they had a real shot at playing in the BCS title game. They were in the Big East, a power conference at the time. It could have happened, in sharp contrast to today, when it can't.

National media swarmed the USF campus. National Public Radio did a segment on Leavitt and his team. USF merchandise began flying off store shelves.

There were skeptics, unabashed and bashed. Alabama coach Nick Saban suggested that several USF defensive players were there only because they hadn't qualified academically for Florida or Florida State.

And Fox Sports NFL analyst Jimmy Johnson (Fox handled the BCS game that season) questioned USF's credentials.

"It shouldn't be possible, because they don't deserve to be up there," Johnson said. "I've got a bunch of teams with two losses that will wear them out."

Against this backdrop, USF went into Rutgers week, or half-week. USF running backs coach Carl Franks struck a note of caution.

"I think it's something everybody in the South Florida family should be proud of," said Franks, part of a national champion at Florida. "But when you get those kind of accolades ... the big thing is to kind of treat it like a bottle of poison. It's not going to hurt you unless you swallow it."

Gulp.

Leavitt refused to discuss the rankings that week, telling media to talk to the players. Bad move.

Then there was the game. All those USF mistakes and missed chances. All those Ray Rice runs for Rutgers. The fake field goal turned Rutgers touchdown. The Bulls, who led 17-10 in the second quarter, were outplayed, outmuscled, outsmarted and outcoached.

Leavitt, for his part, was bonkers, storming up and down the sideline, screaming at officials and his own players. You can still see it on YouTube. He came unhinged. Hello, America.

USF was not ready for its closeup. Rutgers fans stormed their field by the thousands. No. 2 was gone. USF finished 9-4, 4-3 in the Big East. The program still hasn't won a conference title.

Now Strong and these 2017 Bulls are chasing perfection, without any shot at the playoffs. But once upon a time, 10 years ago, whether we believed it or not, USF was No. 2.

Don't bother looking in the sky.

You'll never see it again.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029