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Can Bulls run under the weight of expectations?

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Jim Leavitt doesn't have much use for introspection or big-picture talk. He'd rather plan the next practice or watch film while drinking his ever-present Pepsi.

So when I broached the topic of preseason expectations and rankings to the South Florida coach, he immediately said, "You probably won't get very much from me on that."

Still, the question had to be asked. This is a program so new that the all-time scores section in its media guide takes up less than a full page. The Bulls ascended all the way to No. 2 in the rankings last year before crashing and burning, and this is the first time they've ever begun a season with a number next to their name.

So I asked Leavitt how his team would handle all that. He answered by talking about the Olympics.

"Our goal is to always try and P.R. [personal record] the next game," he said. "You look at all the gold medals Michael Phelps won and -- from what I gathered, anyway -- it wasn't about the competition. It wasn't about the world record. It was about P.R.-ing every time out.

"We want to focus on getting better. That's it. I don't get caught up in that other stuff, because I get too anxious if I do that.

"What happened last year is we started 6-0 and were playing probably about as good as we can play before we dropped off. We didn't improve. If we would have improved, we probably would have won a national championship."

Instead, the Bulls lost three straight games, bowing out not only from the national title race but also exiting the Big East championship picture. The easy analysis was that they withered under the pressure of the spotlight.

There's probably some truth to that. But it's also true that they fell to three bowl teams -- Rutgers, Connecticut and Cincinnati -- by a total of 12 points.

"It was wild," defensive end George Selvie said of his team's rise to No. 2. "Tampa went crazy for us. It's always been an NFL city, and suddenly it was a college town.

"We were young, and we listened to some of it. I think we learned that you can't get complacent. Everybody's coming for you when you're on top, and when you get up there, you've got to stay up there. It's survival."

Leavitt still likes to downplay the burgeoning prominence of his program. When I asked him if major nonconference opponents still wanted to schedule the Bulls, he referred to USF as "that little old team from Tampa. We were in trailers for eight years. We're not striking fear in the heart of anyone."

But clearly, things have changed. With its ability to assemble home-grown talent in Florida, USF is stacking its roster with enough speed and skill to play with anyone. When they pack Raymond James Stadium, as they did last year for West Virginia and Central Florida, the Bulls can draw the biggest home crowd in the Big East. More than 26,000 season tickets have already been sold for this year, the most in school history.

"We're looking to stay up here and keep having those sold-out stadiums," Selvie said. "The players on this team are going to be remembered in history. The Penn States and the Florida States and those schools already have that tradition. We're going to set it. It's an amazing time to be around South Florida."

Talk of a possible national championship last year came prematurely. Oregon proved that in the Sun Bowl, crushing USF 56-21.

For all their upward mobility, the Bulls have never lost fewer than three league games in a season, either in Conference USA or since they joined the Big East in 2005. Winning a conference title remains the next step in the evolution. The rest is just window dressing.

"We just want to build on last year and try to win the Big East," quarterback Matt Grothe said. "Honestly, I haven't heard anybody bring anything up around here about a ranking, so I don't think anybody is too worried about it."

Their coach sure isn't talking about it.

"It just takes too much time," Leavitt said. "I'd rather talk about what happened at practice."