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Florida's 'other' football programs making strides | Gatorsports.com

Florida's 'other' football programs making strides

By Kevin Brockway
Sun sports writer

Published: Friday, July 18, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 12:29 a.m.
TAMPA When the term "big three" was brought up at Florida Sports Writers Association Media Days, Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger scoffed.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Florida Atlantic head coach Howard Schnellenberger moves about the sidelines during last year's game against Florida at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Miami, Florida and Florida State have been commonly referred to as the big three in the state because they are the three schools that play in the most visible conferences with the largest fan bases. The three also have combined to win nine national championships since 1983, when Schnellenberger, ironically enough, coached Miami to the first of its five national titles.

But Schnellenberger was having none of the term this week. And why not agree with him? He coached the only program from the state that won a bowl game last winter.

"Wait a minute," Schnellenberger said. "How about the Big Seven?

"We're only about this far apart" he continued, motioning an inch-sized width with his hands. "All of us. And y'all better get used to it. There are going to be seven football teams that are going to be as strong as the other and it's going to be highly competitive."

For much of the decade, the directional schools throughout the state have made steady progress, through building new facilities and finding hidden recruiting gems in talent-rich Florida. Some of that labor came to fruition last October when USF, a Tampa commuter school of 40,000 students that recently joined the Big East Conference, climbed to No. 2 in the BCS rankings after upsetting Auburn on the plains early last season.

"I think getting to No. 2 shows there's a chance, there's a chance of playing in that national championship game," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "Doesn't mean you will or you won't, it just means you got a shot. We broke through that, and players see there are a lot of exciting things happening."

But Leavitt isn't prepared to put USF on the level of Miami, Florida and Florida State yet.

"I still think to do that, you have to beat them," Leavitt said.

Leavitt will get that chance in the coming years. USF hosts Miami in 2009 at Raymond James Stadium and will face Florida at The Swamp in 2010 and 2011.

FAU, which played Florida close for a half last November at The Swamp before losing 59-20, capped last season at 8-5, winning the Sun Belt Conference and beating Memphis 44-27 in the New Orleans Bowl. The game, televised on ESPN, gave FAU unprecedented national visibility.

With strong-armed FAU junior quarterback Rusty Smith back, the Owls could gain even more credibility if they can pull off an early-season upset either at Texas, at Michigan State or at Minnesota.

"I've been quoted as saying we were going to beat Texas," Schnellenberger said. "I was misquoted. I only said that if we work hard and practice to our capabilities, we have a chance to win the game. It's a football game. Anything can happen."

UCF, which played Texas to the wire before losing to the Longhorns in the opener of its new on-campus stadium last fall, are building a strong foundation under fourth-year coach George O'Leary. The Knights have won two Conference USA titles in O'Leary's four seasons as coach.

"I think we're getting better," O'Leary said. "We just have to continue to win. It's not one year, up and down again. It has to be one year, then keep climbing. That's why recruiting is so important."

The increase in level of play of the seven state Division I schools has resulted in an increased investment in facilities. FIU, a commuter school in Miami coached by former Miami offensive lineman Mario Cristobal, will open its 18,000-seat on campus stadium this fall. FAU plans to build a 30,000-seat on campus stadium in Boca Raton in time for the start of the 2010 season.

Miami coach Randy Shannon said it will be difficult to gauge the progress of the directional schools, because many play in different conferences. But Shannon acknowledged, "If you put all seven of those schools together, you'd have a heckuva conference."

Florida Atlantic University Owls
2007 Sun Belt Football Champions 2007 New Orleans Bowl Champions 2008 Motor City Bowl Champions 2011 Sun Belt Basketball Champions No Bowls without Owls
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