In a switch, USF playing catch up

Three short seasons ago, USF rejoiced following an overtime victory over Miami, proof once again the commuter school in Tampa could take down one of the traditional powers in the state.

Miami promptly fired coach Randy Shannon. Losing to USF? Simply unacceptable at a program with five national championships. Unacceptable at Florida State, too. The Noles also lost to USF, in 2009, in what turned out to be Bobby Bowden’s final season.

Those two victories stand as signature moments in USF history. But as the Bulls prepare to host No. 15 Miami on Saturday, there have been fewer moments to rejoice. USF is 0-3 for the first time in school history. Signature moments instead have become cringe-worthy moments.

Indeed, a program that once put up a billboard proclaiming itself a part of the "Big 4" in Florida has had little to brag about since that win over Miami.

To make matters worse, USF fans have had to watch bitter rival UCF -- just 90 miles down Interstate 4 in Orlando -- emerge as perhaps the second-best team in the American Athletic Conference. The Knights are off to their first 3-0 start as an FBS program and host No. 12 South Carolina on Saturday, fresh off a win at Penn State in Week 3.

The seeming flip-flop the programs have made is particularly stunning when you consider where USF has been. The Bulls once climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings, not UCF. They have the wins over Florida State and Miami, not UCF. They have the wins over UCF, too, dominating the nascent series 4-0 before the series ended in 2008.

In other words, USF always has lorded over UCF like the know-it-all big brother -- older, wiser and worldlier. For the first time, though, UCF is expected to be the overwhelming favorite to win when the teams play in Orlando on Thanksgiving weekend.

Nobody could have predicted that the last time they met. But nobody could have predicted the tumult that would unfold for the Bulls. USF is on its third coach since 2008, and a combination of coaching instability and indifference on the recruiting trail has severely hampered any progress toward building a championship team. It is now up to Willie Taggart to turn around the flagging fortunes.

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