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Why USF and UCF need each other

Last year's USF-UCF game, featuring Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers (9), was an instant classic. The two rivals' hopes of elevating their conference and getting in a new one would get a boost from another entertaining game Friday at Raymond James Stadium. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Last year's USF-UCF game, featuring Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers (9), was an instant classic. The two rivals' hopes of elevating their conference and getting in a new one would get a boost from another entertaining game Friday at Raymond James Stadium. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Nov. 22, 2018
Updated Nov. 23, 2018

So USF and UCF renew their War on I-4 this afternoon.

Bragging rights in a bitter rivalry are on the line. UCF is fighting to keep its long-shot national title hopes alive. USF is trying to salvage something out of what has become a disappointing season.

Fans are talking trash. Players will talk trash. Sounds like fun.

No, it isn't Ohio State-Michigan or even Florida-Florida State, but USF-UCF has become an intriguing tug-of-war in college football, at least in our neck of the woods.

And though both teams badly want to win, here's the thing:

This game means so much more than bragging rights and what it does for the winner. It's way bigger than that.

USF and UCF need each other. What's more, both schools need today's game to be close, exciting and dramatic. The futures of both programs might depend on it.

If these schools ever want to be taken seriously in the national championship picture, if they ever want to be considered for bigger and better conferences, if they ever want to be truly relevant in college football, then they need today's game to be a good one.

Just like last season's, won by UCF 49-42 in one of the year's best games in college football.

Let's face it. The American Athletic Conference doesn't get a whole of respect. It's not a Power 5 conference, and the rest of the country treats it like a little kid. That's why UCF has won 23 games in a row and still can't crack the playoffs.

If UCF and USF ever want to be treated like the big fellas, they have two options:

Get in a major conference. Or raise the AAC's profile enough to earn the rest of the country's respect.

Either way, UCF and USF need one another, and the best way to get the rest of the country to care is to make it care. How? By playing really good games against one another. They need games that are close and meaningful.

The first smart move is that these teams play each other the day after Thanksgiving. That means they don't have to fight for eyes among the other zillion football games on a Saturday.

Last season these teams pretty much had the stage to themselves on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and their all-time classic ending up being the most-watched AAC game ever with 4.7 million viewers. It also was one of the most-viewed Black Friday games of the past 20 years. No doubt, the wild back-and-forth affair was the big reason viewership was through the roof.

It was wonderful publicity for the AAC, and especially for UCF and USF.

This year's game again is on the day after Thanksgiving and in a window with very little competition.

Clearly, each of UCF and USF would love to blow out the other. UCF would prefer to be up 45-0 at halftime. USF would like nothing more than to take a four-touchdown lead in the first quarter.

But either scenario would actually be bad for both schools because a rout would have viewers racing to change the channel. UCF, USF and the AAC need eyes. Unless you're a fan of one of those teams, you're not watching them during the regular season.

Consider this: Last week UCF was the featured ABC Saturday night prime-time game against Cincinnati. About 3.6 million people tuned it, making it the fourth-most-watched UCF game ever. Know how many viewers Alabama and LSU drew earlier this season in prime time? More than 11 million. A year ago at this time, Notre Dame and Miami drew 6.38 million for their prime-time game.

The fact is that causal college football fans aren't watching the AAC.

So on the rare occasions the country is tuning in, the teams need to give it a show. They need to give the country a reason to tune in and stay tuned in. It appears that it's up to USF to play its best game of the season to keep things close against a better UCF team.

Eventually, the best way for UCF and USF to become big-time programs is to escape the AAC and get into a Power 5 conference. It would appear the two are a tandem. Take one and you get the other.

On paper, the two are deserving of joining, say, the Big 12 or ACC. Both have among the biggest enrollments in the country. Both are in major media markets. But that's just on paper.

The schools still lack the pizzazz, the cache, the name recognition to attract a major conference. They are still considered directional schools that are where they are supposed to be.

If that's ever going to change, the programs are the ones responsible for changing it. They can start by playing unforgettable games.

And they can start today.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones.