South Florida's strange trip
September, 9, 2009
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
There are far more interesting games on the schedule this week, but there may not be a weirder listing than this: South Florida at Western Kentucky.
What in the heck are the Bulls doing traveling to Bowling Green for a road game against a team that just moved up to full-time FBS status? South Florida is the first school from a BCS conference to play at Western Kentucky, and it's not even a 3-for-1 or a 2-for-1 type of deal. This is a straight home-and-home series, with the Hilltoppers scheduled to return the game to Tampa next year.
How did this happen? Well, like most things, the explanation starts with money.
South Florida's athletic department isn't flush with cash like, say, an SEC school. The Bulls had already agreed to pay FCS team Wofford $300,000 to come in and play sacrificial lamb. With Florida State and Miami on the docket and a planned in-state rivalry date against Florida International, South Florida wanted another, uh, manageable game.
Problem is, every school in the country is trying to buy these games, so lower-level FBS teams from the Sun Belt and others hold all the cards. They're often charging $600,000 or more to go on the road without a return date.
Add in the fact that Big East schools must schedule five nonconference games instead of the four that most other leagues have, and that becomes a financial burden. And so all of that led the Bulls to agree to play at an FBS newbie with a 22,000-seat stadium.
"It's so hard to find teams to play you," Leavitt said. "And to buy teams to come into your place, you have to pay an awful lot of money. We're just not in a position right now where we can do that. So we've had to play some teams like this and travel. It's something you'd rather not do, but that's the way it is."
The decision to play Western Kentucky made even more financial sense after Florida International dropped out of its contract to play Rutgers. The Bulls then had to go and pay for another home game and wound up writing a $450,000 check to a second FCS team, Charleston Southern.
Will Western Kentucky provide any kind of hurdle at all to South Florida? In their first game as a full-fledged FBS member, the Hilltoppers lost 63-7 at Tennessee on Saturday. But Leavitt said that's not a true representation of their ability.
"You throw a lot of it out," he said. "It was [Lane] Kiffins's opening game at Tennessee, and there were probably 100 million people screaming. So it was a very difficult challenge."
Leavitt has compared this game for his team to last year's game at Florida International. Like Western, FIU had a record crowd in a newly-expanded stadium. The Bulls escaped with a 17-9 win.
Wofford played South Florida close last week for a half before the Bulls ran away for a 40-7 win. With another FCS foe next week before the showdown at Florida State, it would only be human nature for the players to let their minds wander. Leavitt is trying to guard against that.
"We've got to have great focus," he said. "We've got to be better than we were last week."