Jim Leavitt of the University of South Florida is the highest-paid football coach in the Big East. His conference record entering the 2009 season is 14-14. His team has been a favorite to win the conference title the past two seasons but this year the program's perception around the country has changed.
To its hardcore fans and faithful followers, the University of South Florida is the "Little Engine That Could." It is a relatively young program, built by one coach who keeps telling the story of a team built out of trailers and no facilities.
The story is becoming a bit old and the 2009 season for the USF brings an opportunity to show its pride and progress without the previous expectations.
Pittsburgh is the clear preseason favorite to win the Big East title and claim the BCS Bowl berth that goes with it. USF was voted a distant fourth in that poll behind achievers West Virginia and Cincinnati, the 2008 Big East champ.
USF is flying under the radar despite the presence of the two most famous faces among Big East players—quarterback Matt Grothe and defensive end George Selvie.
Grothe and Selvie set the pace Thursday as the Bulls opened their summer training camp. They need a sense of urgency. Their season starts in 29 days albeit against a far less talented opponent. Wofford will provide the competition in the team's home opener at Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 5.
The next 29 days will begin to provide answers to a team that has a lot of questions surrounding it.
Leavitt has two new major coordinators. Mike Canales replaced Greg Gregory as the man in charge of the offense and former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Joe Tresey takes on the position vacated by the venerable Wally Burnham, who left USF for Iowa State.
Tresey and Canales wasted no time Thursday in getting the "attention" of their players. You could hear their voices carry across the practice fields.
There are no questions regarding leadership. Grothe, Selvie, linebacker Kion Wilson and safety Nate Allen can handle that task.
Question marks surrounding the team are on the offense line and the defensive secondary. Leavitt lost four seniors on the o-line and the corner backs last season were dreadful at best.
This team has a gang of newcomers, freshmen and junior college transfers, who will play prominent roles if this team is to succeed.
Freshman Lindsey Lamar got Leavitt's and Grothe's attention and anyone else who watched his foot speed during the first practice. Lamar was a track star at Hillsborough High in Tampa after football season.
There is more speed among the freshmen with defensive back Kayvon Webster, the name Leavitt chanted over and over on signing day last April.
Still, it is Grothe, considered by some to be the "poor man's Tim Tebow," who is making Tebow-like promises.
Last year the team started 5-0 and finished 2-5 over its final seven games.
"It's going to be different because I'm going to make it different," Grothe told the Big East media members this week. ""It's my last year. I can't settle for anything less than first (Big East)."
Likewise, Selvie knows he has to perform better after under-achieving last season, partially due to a nagging high ankle sprain.
"There's a lot riding on this season," Selvie said matter-of-factly.
Indeed there is.
After three "exhibition" games against Wofford (Sept. 5), at Western Kentucky (Sept. 12) and Charleston Southern (Sept. 19), the Bulls will find out what they're made of when they bus to Tallahassee and take on Florida State a former national champion and traditional powerhouse September 26.
That game will set the stage for the "make or break" month of October as far as their Big East hopes are concerned. In October, the Bulls face Syracuse and Cincinnati at home, travel to Pitt then are home again against West Virginia.
By then, their hopes will soar or their worst fears will be realized.
In addition to the Florida State game, the Bulls also get to measure themselves against a former national champion and instate rival, Miami, on Nov.26 at home.
The countdown has started.
High hopes. Lower expectations, as far as national observers go. No expectations as far as the preseason polls go.
As it has been in the past, USF is a team with talent and potential.
But without wins and that elusive Big East title, talent and potential rank right up there with ifs and buts.