AP photo by Chris O'Meara|
South Florida running back Mike Ford (26) celebrates with teammate Benjamin Williams after Ford caught a second-quarter touchdown pass against Elon in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday. Ford, a freshman, was recruited by Auburn and Alabama. He initially committed to Alabama but withdrew that commitment when Mike Shula was fired.
Young South Florida program looking for upset in Auburn
By Ross Dellenger
email@example.com ∑ 340-2462
AUBURN — As a high school senior, Auburn receiver Prechae Rodriguez was heavily recruited by South Florida. No, not for football. Instead, the Bulls liked him for his skills on the basketball court.
"I was leaning toward (going there)," Rodriguez said. "USF was known as a basketball school, not really for football."
Oh, how things have changed.
Rodriguez chose football and is now a starting receiver for the Tigers.
Now a contender to win the Big East Conference, South Florida won its first bowl game in school history last season and is receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week.
The Bulls (1-0) are entering their 11th season of playing football and their second season in the Big East. They'll be playing only their fourth game against a Southeastern Conference team Saturday night when they meet No. 17 Auburn (1-0).
"To play in the football atmosphere that we're going to play in on Saturday night is what I got excited about when I played," said USF coach Jim Leavitt, who started the Bulls' football program in 1997.
South Florida began as a I-AA independent that year then moved to I-A in 2001.
The Bulls played in Conference USA for the 2003 and 2004 seasons before joining the Big East in 2005.
Leavitt has had plenty of opportunities to leave South Florida for more prestigious coaching positions. After Dennis Franchione left Alabama in 2002, Leavitt was offered the job. He turned it down.
"I was the guy who would have had the job and was going to lead them through the probation years," Leavitt said recently in a story on CBSSports.com.
In 2005, Kansas State came calling after the resignation of Bill Snyder, but Leavitt turned them down, too, staying at the place he calls home.
"It will be hard to get him out of there," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "He's done a great job of getting that program off the ground. It won't be long until they are a pretty good force in that league."
It could be as soon as this season.
South Florida finished fourth in the Big East in 2006 with a 9-4 overall record and a 4-3 mark in the conference that included a win at No. 7 West Virginia. And that was all with a freshman quarterback.
Matt Grothe had a solid freshman campaign last year, throwing for 2,567 and rushing for 622 yards while being named the Big East Rookie of the Year. He completed a school record 63.7 percent of his passes, threw for 15 scores and ran for nine more.
And don't think for a second the sophomore from Lakeland, Fla., will be intimidated by the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd.
"I can't wait," he said. "My favorite part of football is away games. You go there and see their atmosphere and you see what you're made of."
A bevy of schools recruited USF freshman running back Mike Ford this past offseason, including Auburn and Alabama. He actually committed to the Crimson Tide but retracted after Mike Shula was fired.
A Sarasota, Fla., native, Ford ran for 83 yards on six carries and scored three touchdowns in South Florida's 28-13 win over 1-AA Elon last week.
Ford was unavailable for reporters who cover Auburn, but he talked to South Florida reporters this week and said he went to the Iron Bowl last season while the two schools were recruiting him.
"It was pretty good, big crowd, loud," Ford said.
Ford isn't the only USF player with a tie to Alabama. Receiver Courtney Denson signed with Auburn as a quarterback out of high school, but during his redshirt freshman year he was moved to the secondary.
Denson transferred to USF in 2004 where he played quarterback for a year then moved to receiver.
"There's going to be a lot of old memories when I first get there," Denson told reporters earlier in the week. "It will be a little bit emotional because I know a lot of guys on the team."
One of those guys is cornerback Patrick Lee, who was Denson's roommate for two years at Auburn.
"I was kind of sad that he left," Lee said. "He wanted to play quarterback. Then he went down there and changed positions twice."
Barring another position change, Lee could find himself covering Denson.
"Me and him will be going back and forth out there," Denson said, laughing.
South Florida at Auburn
5 facts about South Florida
Five things you might not know about South Florida:
The University of South Florida in Tampa is the ninth-largest college institution in the nation with an enrollment of 44,038. Thatís more students than Auburn and Alabama have combined.
South Florida has been playing football for 10 years. The Bulls fielded their first team in 1997 under current coach Jim Leavitt.
South Florida shares its home field — Raymond James Stadium — with the NFLís Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The stadium has a capacity of 65,000, but the Bulls draw about 30,000 a game.
USF was passed up for bowl games in 2002 and 2003. The Bulls finally were invited to a postseason game in 2005, when they lost to North Carolina State in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Last season, South Florida won its first bowl game, over East Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl in Birmingham.
South Florida associate head coach/defensive coordinator Wally Burnham served as an assistant coach for six years at The University of North Alabama from 1972-76. He also is a former Decatur High assistant football coach, serving on the staff that led the Red Raiders to the 1971 state championship.
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