Big East will once again define South Florida's season

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

South Florida coach Jim Leavitt talked about the historic nature of his team's win over Florida State in Saturday's postgame news conference. Near the end of his opening statement, though, Leavitt briefly turned his attention to this week's game at Syracuse.

"We know going up to Syracuse is going to be a tougher situation for us," he said. "If we don't come out and play like we did today, then we'll get beat."

That qualified as one situation where a coach wasn't simply boosting up the next opponent. The Bulls have been down this road before, and they know their journey is actually just beginning.

Beating the Seminoles could have long-lasting ramifications for South Florida's recruiting and position in its own state. But Leavitt's program won't really have arrived until it finally makes a breakthrough in the Big East.

The 2009 season so far is eerily reminiscent of both 2008 and 2007. Let's take a quick look at how those previous two years went:

  • 2007: The Bulls started 6-0, with a monumental win at Auburn. That start, though, was followed by three straight losses and a Big East record of 4-3. Final record: 9-4.

  • 2008: USF began the year 5-0, including a thrilling last-second win over Kansas. That start was followed by a 1-4 stretch and a 2-5 league campaign. Final record: 8-5.

Right now, the Bulls are 4-0. But they've been Mr. September. It's time for them to pull a Reggie Jackson and carry that momentum into October.

South Florida has won 15 straight nonconference games but is just 6-8 in Big East play the past two years. The program has never had fewer than three conference losses in either the Big East or Conference USA.

This month won't be easy. The league opener at Syracuse looks more daunting than it did this summer, as the Orange are 2-2 with a lot of confidence under first-year coach Doug Marrone. South Florida can't spend too much time savoring its big win over Florida State this week in practice.

After this week, the Bulls will have 12 days to get ready for No. 10 Cincinnati's visit to Tampa. Then they'll close out October with a trip to Pittsburgh and a home showdown with West Virginia. The month will define this South Florida season more so than what happened in Tallahassee.

"When you get into the Big East, it's a whole 'nother world," Leavitt said.

Leavitt pins some of the past midseason collapses on injuries that exposed a lack of depth in his program. He said he thinks the depth has gotten better but is still not where it needs to be. South Florida is already dealing with some injuries, none more high-profile than the loss of star quarterback Matt Grothe.

The Bulls, though, overcame that with redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels, who adds some new dimensions to the offense. Several first-year guys played key roles at Florida State, including receiver Sterling Griffin, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, linebacker Sam Barrington and safety Jon Lejiste. Their potential for improvement gives Leavitt some confidence that this year's team will get better as the calendar moves forward, instead of vice versa.

This needs to be the year that South Florida is more than just a September sensation. Or else the Florida State win won't be as historic as much as just history repeating itself.