USF, not Buckeyes, top team

Wade Askew

South Florida deserves to be ranked No. 1 in the country.

Some have said the fact that South Florida is in position to play in the national title game in January is a sign that college football is having a down year.

But the Bulls are no frauds. South Florida has defeated more quality opponents than No. 1 Ohio State and No. 3 Boston College combined.

Consider this. Jim Leavitt’s upstarts from Tampa defeated No. 18 Auburn in the Plains of Alabama despite missing four field goals. While the win is no longer necessarily the huge upset it was once thought to be, the win is certainly far better than Ohio State’s recent victory over an overrated Purdue team or Boston College’s win over Georgia Tech, a team that has since lost to Virginia and Maryland. Auburn has knocked off No. 14 Florida and No. 25 Kansas State, in addition to virtually halting perhaps the nation’s best rushing attack in Arkansas during last week’s 9-7 win.

And South Florida’s biggest win isn’t even that early-season contest against the Tigers. Instead, Sept. 28’s win over No. 9 West Virginia in Tampa signaled to the nation that the Bulls are for real.

South Florida’s story is beyond storybook. Leavitt held the team’s first ever meeting in preparation for the 1997 season under a shady tree, as the school did not have any football facilities – heck, the Bulls still don’t have their own stadium, playing instead in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Raymond James Stadium.

Leavitt’s squad rose into the AP’s top 25 poll faster than any other team in history, spending just 104 weeks outside the rankings before breaking in for the first time. Two weeks and a win over West Virginia later, South Florida became the fastest school to ever break into the top 10. And a week later, the Bulls made the top five in record time.

Nobody knows exactly how Leavitt created such a power so quickly, including probably himself, but it is easy to see how his team is doing so well this year: a suffocating defense.

South Florida ranks 10th in both total and scoring defense and held the vaunted West Virginia spread option attack to just 13 points.

The Bulls also rank 13th in turnover margin, thanks in large part to the play of sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe, who has thrown just three interceptions. A year ago, Grothe earned the Big East Freshman of the Year award and was the most productive freshman in the country with 258.5 yards per game. This year, he leads an offense that averages 35.2 points per game, including last week’s 64-point explosion against a Central Florida team that fell to Texas by just three points four weeks earlier.

While South Florida is certainly no guarantee to run the table and play for a national championship two and a half months from now, the Bulls have earned the No. 1 ranking currently being held by Ohio State, despite the two team’s utter disparity in name-recognition and tradition.

If nothing else, it is safe to assume the Bulls won’t be in another bowl this winter containing the words “.com” or “Car Care.” Instead, it could be something more catchy, like “Sugar,” “Orange,” “Fiesta,” or even “BCS National Championship.”

Deputy sports editor Wade Askew is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]