UCF has always wanted a great football program, and they took some interesting measures to legitimize themselves. Over two decades, they moved up the ranks from Division III to FBS. They joined the MAC for a few years, and then joined more suitable conferences, because great football schools belong to conferences. They pestered USF to play because great football schools have rivalries. They built a stadium because great football schools have stadiums. They built a statue of George O’Leary because great football schools have statues of their greatest coaches.
USF is a different animal. In the 1990s, the football program was conjured up from the dust, and Jim Leavitt’s intensity gave it life. No matter the opponent, anything could happen when USF took the field. They jumped to FBS (in today’s terms) after just four years, and into a BCS conference a couple of years later. By the middle of the 2007 season, USF had arguably risen higher and faster than any college football team in history.
The way to settle which team was better was to play head-to-head. When USF finally agreed to a four-game series with UCF, the Bulls won every game by an average difference of 21 points. It became clear that UCF-USF people weren’t comparing apples to oranges, they were comparing tenderloin steak to oranges.
The Bulls waltzed into the college football world like they owned the place. They took risks. They made a mess. You never knew what to expect watching these guys play, but you knew it would be fun to see.
This is still the hallmark of USF football. The team continues to be dynamic and interesting, even when things aren’t going well. Our hearts pounded as Western Carolina dinked and dunked down the field all through the first game of 2014. We were saved only by Marlon Mack’s debut as the best running back since Barry Sanders. Later that year, Mike White and Andre Davis rode a moose across a damn river to come back and beat Tulsa.
The revamped team now features a brutal and unpredictable rushing attack, jump balls, and trick plays. These guys are more fun to watch than ever before. And you still don’t know what to expect when they take the field.
When USF found themselves in the American Athletic Conference with UCF, the rivalry was revived, and the teams were much more evenly matched. Ranked #19 and headed to the Fiesta Bowl, the Knights were much better than USF’s two-win squad, on paper. But if Nate Godwin’s knee hadn’t been on the ground, or if Marvin Kloss had hit that 51-yarder, USF’s worst team ever might have beaten UCF’s best team ever. A year later, the conference co-champion Knights shut out USF, arguably the low point of Willie Taggart’s tenure. Last year the Bulls buried the bloodied corpse of UCF’s season with a laughable 44-3 win. The rivalry is pretty fun, because the Bulls are involved.
With USF’s rise to Group of Five prominence, the future of the coaching staff is uncertain. Tom Allen left the defensive coordinator job for bigger and better things. (In this world, Indiana is now a bigger and better thing.) Taggart could jump on the coaching carousel next month. Meanwhile, Scott Frost has extinguished the dumpster fire in Orlando and has returned UCF to a respectable standing in just one season. The Knights will be good again soon. The future of this rivalry is certain: USF and UCF will play each other after Thanksgiving every year. And you will like it.
The vastly different paths of the two schools have brought them both to the same place. So you’ll have to hear from UCF fans about their conference honors and the time they spoiled the BCS with a win over Baylor. But you’ll know that they’re actually frightened of USF. Because the Bulls take risks. They have fun. The approach creates a lot of disappointments, but when it pays off, the Bulls are scary.
I’ll take USF’s style over UCF’s any day of the week because they remind us why we like the game in the first place. Because anything can happen with USF. Because rankings mean nothing. Because with USF, for better or worse, you really do have to throw out your predictions. Because above all else, Bulls football is fun.