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UCF-USF dispute rages despite Saturday's game

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From the Orlando Sentinel:

UCF-USF dispute rages despite Saturday's game

Kyle Hightower | Sentinel Staff Writer

Posted September 15, 2006

Anybody who's anybody in college football has a rivalry game.

You know, one game on the schedule that annually puts fans in seats and is coated with the kind of naturally occurring venom that only two teams meant to play one another can generate.

When UCF and USF signed their first contract in 2003, the state finally looked to have produced a common-sense rivalry game that didn't have to feature the Hurricanes, Gators or Seminoles to draw a spotlight. But that was three years ago, when both were on the same page regarding the benefits that an annual meeting would bring. Three years later, for various reasons, the game has gone from "Junior Rivalry With Potential" into the "Junior Rivalry With An Expiration Date."

In other words, can there be a rivalry when the teams may not meet after 2008?

About 42,000 people are expected at the Citrus Bowl for Saturday's game, the second in the series between schools located about 100 miles apart.

The teams met for the first time in 2005, and the series -- USF's first multi-game series with an in-state foe -- would have ended after Saturday's game if not for a deal brokered last month by Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky. That deal extended the series through '08, giving each one more home game.

USF technically still would have one game left against a C-USA foe to satisfy its exit agreement with C-USA. But there is no guarantee the Bulls will honor it, much less continue an annual series with UCF.

If nothing else, Saturday could have recruiting implications. But is that enough to get people excited about a football marriage that seems certain to end in divorce?

"I still think this can be a great rivalry," said CSTV analyst Trev Alberts, who will cover Saturday's game for the network. "UCF and [Coach George] O'Leary want it bad. South Florida seems a little bit hesitant despite the natural fit.

"UCF has kind of taken the Pat Hill/Fresno State path and said, 'We'll play anybody.' USF thinks they are already there. That just makes it more intriguing to me, because USF thinks they are trying to separate from 'lowly UCF.' But in actuality, both are so similar where they are at and trying to go, it only makes sense for it to play out on the field."

O'Leary, who has said he'd prefer to play at least two in-state teams each season, also uses the word "natural."

"I think it's a natural game mainly because I think that it is difficult to get a 12th game that matters. . . . I think if you beat teams from Florida, you are saying something about your program, and you're saying something nationally," he said. "I don't mind having to drive 60 miles instead of 2,000 for a game. I think that's where both programs need to go.

"I don't know what their attitude is. I'm just saying what looks like a good situation for both schools. It's something that we'd like to see continue, but if it doesn't, I've got a lot of people I can go find to play."

USF Coach Jim Leavitt concedes the game is a "natural fit," though he has used several arguments in the past to defend letting the series expire. One is that an annual game against UCF could hurt USF in its quest for a Bowl Championship Series berth.

From his side of the fence, Leavitt said he hasn't given much thought to what will happen after the contract ends.

"It's a game that we're playing this year," he said. "We're excited about it. We're going to play for a while. I don't think about it much. Shoot, three years from now, heck, I may be laying on a beach somewhere.

"There is a lot at stake always. Is there a lot because you are in the Big East? In perception, maybe, but there is always a lot at stake."

Regardless of the off-field banter that has gone on regarding the series, from a player perspective, this is a rivalry.

"I'd have to say pride," UCF sophomore strong safety Sha'reff Rashad said when asked what the game means for the Knights. "Playing a team that's not so far away, you know guys on the other team. . . . It's just pride to play a team that's pretty similar to us and is trying to come up in I-A football and on the rise."

Alberts covered the Colorado-Colorado State game last week and said an annual meeting between UCF and USF has the same potential.

"It's just remarkable how far both have come in such a short time," Alberts said. "If either was located anywhere else, that wouldn't happen. USF has just been around [playing football] since 1997. To be where they are, that's amazing. And UCF was a commuter school, and now they've transformed into a player. Yeah, it can happen; it just will take a little time."

Assuming that there's more time to play.

Kyle Hightower can be reached at khightower@orlandosentinel.com.

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