TAMPA ― Upon his arrival at USF last August, Michael Kelly began working the phones before powering up his desktop.
As a former ACC and College Football Playoff administrator, Kelly knew the challenges involved with non-conference football scheduling, especially for schools (such as USF) on the periphery of the power conferences.
So he began reaching out to “pretty much anyone” to gauge their interest in playing football against the Bulls in the next decade.
“Sometimes people say they just don’t have any room, and some people say, ‘Maybe, we’ll see how it comes together,’” Kelly said.
But by casting such a wide net, Kelly landed some of the biggest brands on the college landscape, including arguably the biggest.
The school announced Thursday it has agreed to a three-game series (two games in Tuscaloosa, one in Tampa) with 11-time national champ Alabama. Less than two weeks before, the Bulls announced a similar two-for-one series with Miami. A two-for-one with Florida, set up shortly before Kelly’s arrival, also looms.
Suddenly, the Bulls possess arguably the most appealing ― and daunting ― non-conference schedule over the next decade of any Group of Five program in the country. Since January, USF has added 14 games against Power Five competition over the next decade
“I’ve been able to spend my first nine months here really listening and trying to survey where I think we are,” Kelly said. "And it became very clear to me that our players, our coaches and our fans were all very eager and interested in playing the top teams we can in the non-conference schedule.
“We’re eager to play anyone, and we’re appreciative of the chance to play people, and we know it makes sense on many levels.”
One of those levels is financial.
Though the USF-Alabama game contract wasn’t immediately available, Kelly said in the first two games of the series, the visiting team receives a standard monetary guarantee that will cover expenses.
But for Game Three ― on Sept. 12, 2026 in Tuscaloosa ― USF will receive $1 million. Similarly, USF will receive a total of $1.2 million for a pair of trips to Louisville early in the next decade.
“We think this is the right thing for us for really all aspects concerned,” Kelly said.
The USF-'Bama series opens on Sept. 16, 2023 at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls play in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 7, 2024, and return there in ’26.
The ’23 contest will be Alabama’s first road game against a non-Power Five opponent since a ’03 trip to Hawaii. That game served as a de facto bowl trip for the Crimson Tide, who were then on NCAA probation.
The Bulls previously have played 'Bama once, losing to the Crimson Tide, 40-17, in the ’03 season opener in Birmingham.
“(Bulls coach) Charlie Strong has built a strong program with the Bulls, and playing this kind of competition only makes our team better," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said in a UA news release.
That statement also would seem to apply to USF, though its accumulation of such non-conference heavyweights has been met with mild chagrin in Orlando.
UCF athletic director Danny White recently suggested he’s not crazy about two-for-one deals, suggesting the concession of two road games in exchange for one home contest wasn’t befitting a team from the American Athletic Conference, which deems itself the nation’s sixth “power” conference.
Because it tries to schedule seven home games annually, UCF typically shuns two-for-one deals. The Knights’ future slates include games against Stanford, Louisville, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, but none against the Gators, FSU or Miami.
“For me, I’m truly focused on what we think is best for USF in terms of scheduling,” Kelly said.
“We want to position ourselves with interesting and attractive games for our players, coaches and fans, and position ourselves as best we can for the CFP format with our non-conference scheduling.
"And again, it’s also supposed to be a lot of fun. These games are kind of why we do it.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.