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MARSHALL AND USF: A TALE OF TWO PROGRAMS
October 17, 2007

SCS.com It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... The year 1997 brought two very interesting developments in college football. The Marshall Thundering Herd football team moved back into Division I-A after being kicked out of the MAC and suffering a devastating plane crash 30 years previous. A little farther down the east side of the country, the South Florida Bulls started a football team for the first time in school history. Both of these teams would make unexpected leaps and bounds, and the future looked so bright for both programs.

Marshall turned it around in 1984 and had winning seasons for the next 21 years. Two national titles in I-AA in 1992 and 1996 pushed the university back into I-A in 1997. Marshall jumped back into the MAC that had kicked them out, and continued the high level of success they had enjoyed in I-AA. League championships rained into Huntington, WV in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2002. In 1999 Marshall went undefeated and ended the season in the Top 10 in the country. Marshall quickly became the flag bearer for all non-BCS schools, trying to bust the BCS and the national title picture. It appeared that Marshall would become an elite I-A program.

Meanwhile in Tampa, South Florida found a way in program infancy to be successful and moved into Raymond James Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just one year later in 1998. South Florida found enough success to follow Marshall into Division I-A in 2001, only four years after their beginning. The Bulls started as an independent team for the first two years of I-A play, but still found a small modicum of success. Finally in 2003, the Bulls joined the new Conference USA and had a home.

Marshall head coach Bob Pruett proved how great a recruiter he could be right as Marshall jumped into I-A. All those MAC titles were won on the backs of future pro superstars such as QB Chad Pennington, WR Randy Moss, and QB Byron Leftwich. The rapid national prominence and success led Marshall to think about leaving the conference it was dominating for higher ground. The ACC raid on the Big East and the subsequent fallout led to openings in Conference USA, one of which was snapped up by Marshall. A new coach, Mark Snyder, and 8 nationally televised games in 2005 had the fans excited for more, perhaps even truly busting into the BCS.

Meanwhile in Tampa, coach Jim Leavitt did not recruit the flashiest pro prospects, but somehow found a way to continue getting solid classes of recruits in the hotbed that is Florida. Only two years after joining Conference USA, the aforementioned ACC-Big East fallout opened three spots in a BCS conference for non-BCS teams. Surprisingly, the Big East pulled the Bulls out of C-USA alongside more established members Cincinnati and Louisville. Only two seasons removed from I-A independence and four from I-AA, South Florida was viewed as a primary reason the Big East Conference should lose their BCS status. The future looked tough for the Bulls competing against much more established programs.

Unfortunately, 2005 was a turning point for both these up-and-coming programs, at least if you ask Marshall. The Thundering Herd withered in the national spotlight and struggled to 4-7 and 5-6 finishes in 2005 and 2006. This season has been even worse, as the Thundering Herd are 0-6 with embarrassing losses to rival West Virginia and New Hampshire. Fans are calling for coach Snyderís head already and Marshall is suddenly at the bottom of Division I-A, one of only three teams currently winless out of 120. It is truly the worst of times in Huntington, to paraphrase Dickens.

South Florida maintained the course and found continued success in their 2005 debut in the Big East, including knocking off the heavy league favorite Louisville. The 2006 season continued the surprises as the Bulls knocked off a seemingly BCS-bound West Virginia team in Morgantown. These two seasons signaled that the Bulls were not only worthy of a BCS conference, but may even be a frontrunner. All the determination and hard work of the players and coach Leavitt have paid off in 2007. USF broke into the Top 25 rankings quicker than any other team after jumping into I-A other than Boise State. The Bulls upset Auburn and West Virginia, running out to a 6-0 start. The Bulls have upset the league favorite every year since joining the Big East, and now remain as one of only six undefeated teams in 2007. All the favorites losing in the crazy 2007 season helped South Florida reach #2 in the first BCS standings released this week, only following last seasonís championship contender Ohio State. It is indeed the best of times down in Tampa.

At the beginning of 2005, it appeared that Marshall was preparing to break into the BCS and USF had bitten off too hard a challenge. Ten years after Marshall made the move to I-A and USF came into existence, these two up-and-comers could not be more different in 2007. Marshall struggled and has had to watch Boise State steal all their thunder, breaking into the BCS in 2006 and completing the only undefeated season in college football last year with a win over Oklahoma. South Florida continues to get better and better, and is in the driverís seat for a BCS berth and national championship thanks to the crazy season. This begs the question: how did this divergence happen? How did these two programs on the fast track end up on opposite ends of Division I-A, creating a Dickens-like situation in 2007?

The key is clearly coaching and the size of the communities behind these programs. Bob Pruett might have been a great recruiter, but he moved on and the coaching staffs behind him lack the genius necessary to encourage prized-recruits to come to West Virginia. That state does not have very many good players that are not snatched up by WVU, and neighboring Ohio is a battlefield for bigger schools in the Big Ten. Coaching uncertainty and problems recruiting will only continue to lead this once-proud program into the bottom tier of Division I-A.

There are some coaching trees of high fame and caliber such as the Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick pro/college tree, but Jim Leavitt for USF also comes from another of these groups. Leavitt worked with Bob and Mike Stoops under Hayden Fry, the legendary coach who turned around programs at North Texas State and Iowa. Leavitt learned at an early coaching age how to build a program from the inside out, winning at every level. USF also has an easy time selling Tampa to the local hotbed of recruits in Florida and elsewhere, despite the lack of facilities in the past or program history. USF has been consistently in the top 10 for student enrollment, so the campus is a lively and booming place to be as well. Playing in a top quality NFL stadium in front of a national BCS audience cannot hurt either.

Consequently, ten years after both programs made big leaps in the college football world, each is headed in opposite directions. Marshall hopefully will be able to regain some of the magic of the past few years, but USF could be the real deal on the national stage, a great story for a large campus of fans and one outstanding coach. Even if the boys from Tampa lose a couple games and miss out on the BCS this year, nobody should doubt that Jim Leavitt will continue to improve this program to the point where Top 10 rankings are no longer out of the ordinary. USF and Marshall ... The Tale of Two Programs will continue as crazy 2007 winds down to a frantic finish.

October seems loaded with great games every week, and this is no exception as many top teams get tough road tests. Games such as Michigan at Illinois and Kansas at Colorado will test the mettle of ranked teams, while classic battles such as USC at Notre Dame and Miami at Florida State still have plenty of emotion on the line. The game that just misses the cut this week is Texas Tech at Missouri. The Tigers need to recover quickly from an Oklahoma beatdown while Tech seems to have a legitimate defense for the first time in decades. The winner of this game stays in the hunt for the BCS, while the loser is probably running out of time. Still, that game falls a little short of the Top 3 Games of the Week.

The first game of the week is a Thursday evening showdown between BCS frontrunner South Florida and Rutgers. Last seasonís feel good surprise from the Big East will try to right the ship after two straight home losses in front of record Piscataway crowds against Maryland and Cincinnati. Rutgers could grab the conference lead with homes games this week against the Bulls and next week against WVU, but USF is playing to stay in the national title picture. Both teams are coming off a short week, but Rutgers should be fine behind the leadership of QB Mike Teel and Heisman candidate RB Ray Rice. League rookie of the year in 2006, Bulls QB Matt Grothe is a threat on his feet as well as in the passing game. Despite these playmakers, these two teams boast by far the best defensive units in the conference. Expect a low scoring game where a turnover could make all the difference. The poor luck of top ranked teams continues in this one, as Rutgers will win by 4.

The second and third games of the week come from the SEC, and these might as well be Divisional Championship games in October. The second game of the week matches Auburn and LSU in the SEC West. Both teams share the division lead at 3-1 with Alabama, but these two teams appear to be better than the Crimson Tide at this halfway point in the conference season. Both teams have great defenses and know how to win close games against tough competition (they each beat Florida back-to-back in tight games), but the Bayou Bengals have a much better offense. LSU QB Matt Flynn has struggled a bit this season, but RB Jacob Hester has helped keep the offense driving with a top 10 rushing attack. Auburn QB Brandon Cox has thrown 7 interceptions to go with 4 touchdowns this season, and the problems will only get worse on the road against a blitzing defense. LSU is looking for someone to beat on after losing at Kentucky and knows the BCS championship is still on the line, so expect LSU to solidify the path to the SEC Title game with a 17 point win.

The top game of the week is Florida at Kentucky, a battle for controlling destiny in the SEC East race. Kentucky needs another loss by South Carolina to gain control of the division, but a loss for either team all but knocks them out of SEC title contention. Both the Gators and Wildcats have potent offensive units. Florida goes as QB Tim Tebow goes, and he will use his legs and powerful arm to carry the Gators in all games this season. Gator WR Percy Harvin has been Tebowís favorite target. Kentucky counters with Heisman hopeful QB Andreí Woodson, whose 21 TD and 4 INT is impressive to go along with a win against top-ranked LSU. Kentucky will be without leading rusher Rafael Little again this week, but that did not slow them last week as RB Derrick Locke and RB Tony Dixon split the workload. Florida has fallen from the BCS Championship days with two straight losses to Auburn and LSU, followed by a bye week last week which has been emotionally trying with the death of DB Michael Guilford in a motorcycle accident. The Gators are favored to continue the dominance over Kentucky, but the Wildcats have been in enough close games to defend the home turf in this one. Florida loses a shocking third straight game, Kentucky by 3.

GOTW Record to Date: 13-11 (.542)
Last Week: 1-2

Fitz Top 10 Ė Week 7
1. Ohio State (7-0)
2. Boston College (7-0)
3. South Florida (6-0)
4. Kansas (6-0)
5. Arizona State (7-0)
6. Hawaii (7-0)
7. LSU (6-1)
8. Oklahoma (6-1)
9. Oregon (5-1)
10. Virginia Tech (6-1)
Just Missed: South Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida, Missouri

After taking three weeks off for vacation and a wedding, I will be following the travels of national title contender Ohio State for the next four weekends. Go experience college football in 2007 as this might be the season a two loss team makes the championship at the rate itís going. See you next week!

U.S.A.
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