South Florida leaped from virtual unknown into the top 10 of the AP poll for three weeks in 2007, yet ended the season unranked.
The Bulls’ ascent in the poll hasn’t happened as fast in 2008, but they’re hoping to stay in it for longer this time.
The No. 10 Bulls look to open their Big East schedule the same way they closed last season’s conference slate, with a victory over Pittsburgh, when the teams meet Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium.
USF (5-0) rose as high as No. 2 in the poll last year, but three straight losses left them unranked. They got back in by closing Big East play with three consecutive wins, including a 48-37 victory at Pitt on Nov. 24, before a 35-point loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl dropped them out of the Top 25 again.
Unlike last season, when USF rose from No. 18 to the top five in two weeks, it’s been a methodical climb for the Bulls to start 2008. They began at No. 19 but moved into the top 10 after Saturday’s 41-10 win at N.C. State, a game in which they piled up 520 yards of offense.
“That’s the first time we’ve had a complete game,” USF defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “It’s about time.”
The Bulls rallied to defeat then-No. 13 Kansas 37-34 on Sept. 12, but that was surrounded by a pair of uneven road performances in wins over Central Florida on Sept. 6 and woeful Florida International on Sept. 20.
USF’s Matt Grothe, who threw 10 interceptions in his final six games as a sophomore last season, feels his team is better prepared to handle a high ranking in ’08.
“We are more mature (this season),” said Grothe, who leads the Big East in passing yards per game (235.0) and touchdowns (eight). “We know we just need to play football and it will all come as it should if we keep winning.”
Grothe threw for 259 yards and a touchdown against N.C. State, but the biggest star was a defense missing three starters from its front seven, including All-American lineman George Selvie.
Despite not having Selvie - the NCAA’s active career leader in tackles for loss - and senior linebacker Brouce Mompremier, the Bulls allowed 26 yards on the ground and picked off the Wolfpack’s Harrison Beck three times.
Coach Jim Leavitt is hopeful Selvie, who sat out with an injured ankle, will return against Pitt. Mompremier isn’t expected to play after suffering a neck injury against Florida International.
The Bulls could certainly use Selvie as they look to limit Panthers tailback LeSean McCoy, the nation’s top freshman rusher last season. McCoy had seven 100-yard games in 2007, but had yet to record one this year through three games.
That changed Saturday in a 34-24 win at Syracuse, when he had 149 yards on 28 carries as Pitt rallied from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit to win just its second Big East opener in five years.
McCoy may not find as many holes at the line of scrimmage against the Bulls, who are fourth in the country in rush defense at 58.8 yards per game.
“I think everybody who’s been around and watched South Florida play knows how talented they are,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “They have a great defense.”
Grothe was the game’s leading rusher when Pitt (3-1, 1-0) lost to USF in November at Heinz Field, running for 67 yards and a touchdown and going 17-for-23 for 159 yards. McCoy managed just 55 yards on 18 carries, but had three touchdowns to go along with a game-high 83 yards receiving.
If the Bulls’ rush defense lives up to its billing, the Panthers will need some big plays from quarterback Bill Stull. The first-year starter hasn’t made many so far - he’s averaging just 5.8 yards per attempt, seventh in the conference, and has two touchdown passes in four games.
Pitt and USF have split their two previous meetings in Tampa.