- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

South Florida’s emergence as a serious BCS title contender proves again that the Sunshine State is the game’s grass roots epicenter.

When the Tampa school informed the nation in 1996 that it was starting a football program, most outsiders scoffed. Florida was about to win a national title under Steve Spurrier. Florida State was in the midst of its mind-boggling run of four title-game appearances in five seasons. And Miami was about to experience a dominating renaissance under Butch Davis. With such national powerhouses as neighbors, South Florida was given little shot of establishing a high-profile program.

“Honestly, I never doubted that our day would come,” said South Florida coach Jim Leavitt, whose team did nothing but hold practices that first season. “I looked at the Tampa area, the size of the school [45,000 students], and the recruiting base and told everyone who would listen that South Florida was a sleeping dragon.”

Well, a dozen years later, Leavitt’s beast is soaring, leaving skeptics and a number of elite opponents stunned and scorched in its wake. Proving that its 26-23 overtime upset of No. 17 Auburn on the Plains was no fluke, the Bulls (4-0) trampled No. 5 West Virginia 21-13 a week ago to grab the gauntlet as 2007’s dark horse darling.

“The possibilities are endless,” sophomore defensive end George Selvie said after South Florida snuffed West Virginia. “We’re on top of the world.”

Not quite, but the Bulls are ranked No. 6, ahead of all three members of Florida’s Great Triumvirate. And after a Big East preseason defined by a combination of Heisman Trophy talk and the title chatter of West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers, South Florida is now both the league’s most compelling story and only national-title contender.

In keeping with state tradition, South Florida’s key to success is as simple as it is potent: homegrown speed, particularly on defense. Doubly motivated by last season’s upset loss to the Bulls in Morgantown, West Virginia’s run-first quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton were supposed to test that speed Friday at Raymond James Stadium. They didn’t.

White left the game in the second quarter with a bruised quad and didn’t return. Slaton finished with 13 carries for 54 yards and fumbled three times. Both exited the game as “former” Heisman candidates.

“For the second year in a row, Steve Slaton was a nobody. Pat White was a nobody,” South Florida senior nose guard Richard Clebert said. “We might have surprised the nation, but it didn’t surprise us.”

The Mountaineers simply found out what Auburn already knew: The Bulls have a ton of blue-chip talent on the defensive side of the ball. While Clebert (6-foot-1, 312 pounds) anchors the line inside, Selvie terrorizes opponents off the edge, leading the nation in both sacks (9½) and tackles for loss (16½). Butkus Award candidate Ben Moffitt, a senior, is a sideline-to-sideline mauler at middle linebacker. And three members of South Florida’s secondary (senior cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams and sophomore free safety Nate Allen) boast sprinters’ speed and NFL futures.

Remarkably, all six of those defensive standouts are from Florida. In fact, 100 of the 109 players listed on the team’s extended roster hail from within the state. Many were recruited by other, more prestigious schools but chose to stay close to family and friends. Others, including both primary tailbacks on the roster (Mike Ford and Jamar Taylor), signed outside the state and either failed to qualify academically or returned home to the promise of more playing time.

Ford, a monster recruit in 2004 after setting the all-time Florida rushing record as a senior in Sarasota with 2,836 yards, signed at Alabama but failed to qualify. After a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., Ford then enrolled at South Florida in January and now leads the Bulls in rushing as a brawny 6-2, 225-pound freshman with a 5.6-yard average on 38 carries. How good is Ford? Just to give some indication, he started ahead of LSU’s top tailback, Keiland Williams, when they were both at Hargrave in 2005.

Such stories are typical up and down the South Florida roster.

“I couldn’t believe the talent level when I got here,” said defensive line coach Dan McCarney, who is debuting at South Florida this season after a 12-year run as the coach at Iowa State. “You look around and realize this is just the beginning for this program. The best is definitely yet to come.”

That’s a fairly scary thought for the near-future, given that South Florida faces only two more ranked opponents (No. 20 Cincinnati and at No. 21 Rutgers) and begins life as a top-10 team this weekend against lightly regarded Florida Atlantic (3-2). Then again, Leavitt and Co. know all about the pitfalls of dismissing a team based on rankings and reputation, particularly when that team is a relative upstart from the land of sunshine and speed.

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